When Emotional Pain Manifests Physically: Alleviating Distress

Stephen* has a chronic illness that has affected him since the age of six.  Over the years, he’s learned a number of coping techniques to help him manage the constant medical care, and any mini or major crises that may come up along the way. When he feels stressed or upset, the care his illness […]

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Stephen* has a chronic illness that has affected him since the age of six.  Over the years, he’s learned a number of coping techniques to help him manage the constant medical care, and any mini or major crises that may come up along the way. When he feels stressed or upset, the care his illness requires increases dramatically. 

Karen* was experiencing frequent physical pain but was unable to find a reason for her symptoms. She sought medical attention and was given a series of exercises that helped her somewhat, but Karen only felt relief from pain when she experienced positive events in her life. 

Rachel* is a generally healthy young woman who experienced a traumatic event  which did not appear to affect her overall mood. Eventually.  her sleep patterns and other aspects of her life became more difficult to manage, and that began to affect how she was feeling. 

What do these three individuals have in common

In their own way, each has experienced emotional reactions that were expressed through their bodies. Understanding the connection between emotions and how they affect a client’s physical self is one of the many DBT skills I utilize in my work as a therapist at Machon Dvir, a Jerusalem-based DBT clinic where I practice. 

An offshoot of cognitive behavior therapy, DBT, or Dialectical Behavior Therapy, is effective in helping people with emotional regulation and is often used to treat anxiety, depression, and a variety of other conditions.

Stephen’s illness would be exacerbated anytime he was stressed or overwhelmed with negative emotions. Learning to identify physical sensations he felt in his body was one way he was able to identify what he was feeling, giving him the tools he needed to respond to his emotions more effectively. 

Karen was able to attend to her pain through physical therapy and other medical recommendations. At the same time, her pain was significantly reduced after she experienced positive events in her life. While her positive emotions were not a “cure” per se, it contributed to her overall well-being because she was holding certain negative emotions in her body that were resolved once she was able to connect to positive emotions. 

Rachel was holding traumatic memories within her body. Although they did not manifest as pain, her inability to  sleep and feelings of  sluggishness made it clear that the trauma was becoming more expressive and needed to be given more attention. 

What we can learn from Stephen, Karen, and Rachel

DBT gives us several principles that can guide our emotional and physical selves:

Our bodies need to be given more credit.  

Often people are focused on changing their beliefs, thoughts, or experiences, either in a therapeutic setting or on their own. While this is important, being able to spend time focusing on what our body is communicating is really significant. If we pay a bit more attention, we can learn so much about our emotions –  and ourselves. Each time we feel something emotional our body experiences some type of physical sensation. The more in-tune we are with our bodies, the more we can pinpoint and recognize which emotion we are feeling.  This gives us insight to respond and regulate emotions

Physical pain is real pain

It isn’t “all in your head.” That’s why seeking out medical attention and care is important and an integrated part of emotional healing. Ensuring that you take care of physical pain and give it the attention it deserves is important. Physical pain is real –  it’s your body’s way of  communicating with you.  The pain may be reduced or eliminated by giving both your body and emotional state some attention.

Our emotions are affected by the physical state of our body.

When we don’t get enough sleep, eat properly, exercise, or even shower, our emotional state is thrown out of whack. When we neglect our physical selves it makes us more vulnerable to our emotions, and ultimately makes  it harder to respond to situations effectively. The reason we don’t focus on our physical needs may be due to general life stress, things falling by the wayside, or a more extreme level: when our emotions take hold and we find ourselves having a harder time making ourselves a priority. Whatever the underlying reason for a lack of physical self-care,  if we reverse that trend,  we will see how something which seems small or insignificant can greatly affect us in a positive way. 

Wishing everyone a healthy summer filled with opportunities to bring our body and mind together in an integrated way. 

*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

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