Our bodies often express what our minds cannot handle feeling, or knowing. This is called psychogenic pain – when physical pain is linked to emotional stress.
Psychogenic pain isn’t a flighty new-age concept. In fact, quite a few studies have looked at the relationship between physical pain and emotional stress.
Even ancient practices like Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine have been aware of how the state of our mind affects our body. For example, irritability and inappropriate anger can impinge liver function, resulting in menstrual pain, headache, redness of the face and eyes, dizziness and dry mouth (1).
What is Psychogenic Pain?
Psychogenic pain is a term for pain caused by psychological factors like depression and anxiety (2). It is closely linked to the emotions of depression and anxiety, but can also be caused by other factors like stress (which is inherently, more often than not, linked to anxiety). People with depression and anxiety may report experiencing psychogenic pain all over their bodies, even when there is no physical cause.
Unfortunately, psychogenic pain is harder to treat than pain caused as a direct result of injury, nerve damage or inflammation. With the aforementioned types of pain, herbal remedies to reduce inflammation and gentle stretching can often be used to remediate the problem. However, with psychogenic pain, you need to battle your mind in order to get to a different state of thinking and being – which, as you might have guessed, is a little more difficult.
How Emotions Can Cause Physical Pain
Trying to address the physical causes for chronic pain is not always sufficient. According to Sarah Irons, MA and Registered Clinical Counsellor, the body-mind relationship can be coined as a condition medical practitioners call Mind-Body Syndrome (MBS), or Tension Myositis Syndrome (3). Dr. John Sarno is the one who founded the movement, and has written several books explaining the condition.
The basic idea here is that our minds are capable of creating many types of physical symptoms in the body. Whether that is back pain, shoulder pain, or neck pain, the mind is a powerful contributor to the aches and pains we experience. And while many doctors claim that these symptoms are “all in our heads,” Sarah Irons points out that “These are real headaches, real physical pain, real digestive distress, and so on. But their origin may be fundamentally emotional.”
A great book that touches on this subject of mind-body pain is “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma,” written by Peter A. Levine. As children, many of us grew up without parents or caretakers who were able to help us process whatever difficult things happened to us. But as children, we rely on our parents to help us make sense of what’s going on (after all, they’re our main source of trust!). When we don’t get that support, we do the best we can. We find ways of coping that develops protection mechanisms against frightful scenarios or feelings. We internalize by keeping quiet, or externalize by acting out.
With wild animals, dealing with trauma is completely different. Take a gazelle who has just been chased by a cheetah, for example. Let’s say the cheetah didn’t chase the gazelle, but the gazelle is still left with the trauma of being chased. They instinctively deal with their trauma by quite literally shaking it off, and getting on with their lives. This doesn’t work the same way in humans. We don’t have ways of discharging trauma and stress, and so instead, it builds up inside of us and we repress it.
Western Society Not Set up For Healthy Healing
This largely has to do with the way Western society is currently structured – without ceremony, and without understanding that we all need different ways of processing trauma and stress, or even excitement. From a young age, we learn these feelings are not welcome for expressing around other people.
Sarah Irons put is very well: “…we learn, before we even know what we are learning, how to shove our feelings back down into our bodies (4).”
And it’s this repressing of emotions, pain, sadness, and even excitement, that causes real, physical pain. Instead of processing your anger or hurt feelings, you get a headache. Instead of dealing with the fact that you’ve taken on too much responsibility, the “weight of the world” manifests as shoulder pain – feeling weighed down.
While certainly not all physical pain is caused by ailments of the mind, it’s important to get in tune with your body so you can distinguish between emotionally based issues, and physically-based ones.
If you’ve been making changes to your diet for years, but you’re still having problems, maybe it’s time to look a little more inward.
New Scientific Proof
Even science is finding links between the way the mind affects the body, physically. A new study published in Psychology Today explored how emotional trauma can be just as responsible for chronic pain as it is physical injury.
According to Dr. Susanne Babbel (5):
“Chronic pain is defined as prolonged physical pain that lasts for longer than the natural healing process should allow. This pain might stem from injuries, inflammation, or neuralgias and neuropathies (disorders of the nerves), but some people suffer in the absence of any of these conditions. Chronic pain can debilitate one’s ability to move with ease, may hinder their normal functioning, and the search for relief can lead to pain medication addictions, which compound the problem. Chronic pain is also often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, depression, and anxiety.”
She goes on to say how physical pain “functions to warn a person that there is still emotional work to be done, and it can also be a sign of unresolved trauma in the nervous system.”
Sound familiar? This is exactly what Ancient Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda have been saying for centuries.
10 Types of Physical Pain Linked to Emotional Stress
What body parts pain you the most? Use the guide below to find out what you might need to work on, and how you can break through to release the tension. Helping heal the body simply through state of mind is a practice many of us are not aware of – but is possible.
1. Pain in the Neck
If you have a pain in your neck, you might have issues forgiving yourself and/or others. “Your neck is where you hold guilt and self-recrimination,” according to Reiki practitioner and kinesiology expert, Lori D’Ascenzo (6). If you feel like you’re having strong judgements about yourself, now would be a great time to start making a list of all the things you love about yourself (and others). If you feel guilty about something, come clean.
2. Pain in the Shoulders
After her 26 years of bodywork experience, and a decade of teaching yoga, Darragh Simon of Trinity Wellness has a deep understanding of body-mind connection. According to Simon, tense shoulders could be a sign that you’re carrying too much weight of the world around with you. You take on more responsibilities than you can handle, and the stress of trying to keep up is getting to be a bit too much. Try slowing down and not taking on so much. Take some you-time every now and then, and believe that you’re worth your time, just as much as everyone else is.
3. Pain in the Elbows
If you’re experiencing elbow pain, it may represent a resistance to change in direction. Perhaps you have a goal in life that you’ve been putting off, or you’re resisting it for some reason. Maybe you don’t trust your own path and goals, and are resistant to accepting new experiences. Try bringing down your walls a bit and open yourself up to those new experiences. You’ve only got one life – so live it!
4. Pain in the Upper Back
According to life coach and self-help author, Ronda Degaust, “The upper back has to do with feeling the lack of emotional support. You may feel unloved or you may be holding back your love from someone else (7).” If you’re having some upper-back problems, and you don’t sit hunched over at a computer all day, you might want to try opening yourself up to love. If you’re single, because you feel like you’re “unlovable,” now’s the time to get back in the dating scene.
5. Pain in the Lower Back
Ronda Degaust also mentions pain associated with the lower back. According to Degaust, the lower back represents worries regarding finances. Perhaps you have a fear of money, or fear not having enough. Or maybe you fear material loss. Whatever the worry is, your lower back could be suffering because of it. The amount of money you have has nothing to do with the pain, it’s the “fear of your own survival that amplifies the pain (8).”
6. Pain in the Hips
According to Lindsay Simmons, owner of Empower Healing, tightness in the hips could mean you fear your future, fear relationships and aren’t quite sure of how to move forward in major life decisions. Having trouble at work, or in other inter-personal relationships? You might be holding that energy in your hips. This is a message to your body that you need to move on an important decision, and stop stalling.
7. Pain in the Knees
Your knees represent your ability to bend and flow with life. They are the power center of your legs. If your knees are healthy, they bend easily. If not, they are rigid and painful. Rightfully so, if you’re a rigid, non-bending person, your knees will also be the same. Rigid knees often go hand-in-hand with those who are stubborn and ego-ridden. Learn to ease up a bit and be humble.
8. Pain in the Ankles
Our ankles represent support. In comparison to our feet and legs, they’re incredibly tiny and fragile, and yet enable us to stand upright and walk. Our ankles reflect the support we depend on from others, and the support others depend on from us. When we feel un-supported, or that we’re not being a good enough support, our ankles might feel the blame (9).
9. Pain in your Feet
Similar to our ankles, our feet are what carry us forward day in, day out. They’re also what ground us to the earth. If your feet are experiencing more pain than normal, maybe you need to tread different terrain – try something new. Or, maybe you just need to sit back and give your feet a break. You can’t accomplish everything in one day!
10. Pain in your Hands
According to Lori D’Ascenzo, “Hands reach out to others. Are you stifling your need to reach out and connect with others?” (11). If your ‘hands are tied’ you might be getting involved in other people’s emotional matters a little too much. You need to realize that people are only capable of saving and helping themselves. While you can be a support (empathy is great!), giving it your all, and trying desperately to change or help a person will sometimes backfire in the end.