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In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers looked at the connection between feelings of rejection and other emotional traumas with the development of physical pain. (1)
Interestingly, using a type of brain mapping called fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging – a neuroimaging procedure using MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow), researchers found that the same neural pathways the brain activates when you are burned by a cup of coffee are activated when your romantic partner breaks up with you. (1)
According to the study, “rejection and physical pain are similar not only in that they are both distressing—they share a common somatosensory representation as well.”
In other words, the brain, on one level, makes no distinction between intense emotional pain and a broken bone.
A Brutal Test
In the study, they recruited 21 women and 19 men who had no history of either long term physical or emotional pain or abuse, but had been dumped by their partners within the past six months. They were each given an fMRI during two painful tasks. The first task was to experience physical pain by having a heat source strapped to their arm, as to mimic holding a hot cup of coffee without a sleeve. The second task was to look at a picture of the loved one who dumped them while they were prompted to recall specific experiences of rejection they had with that person.
Interestingly, the two areas of the brain that lit up during the emotional stress were areas of the brain known to be used for physical pain.
This study was the first to help researchers map the actual pathway the body uses to link emotions and physical pain, opening up many doors regarding therapeutic application.
Is it possible to treat physical pain by addressing the emotions, and to treat the emotions through physical body work?
There is good science to back up the notion that one’s physical pain might be due to an emotional trauma. In fact, clinicians are now using these findings to encourage patients to seek psychotherapy and counseling when experiencing pain that has a history related to an emotional trauma.
This research expounds on the groundbreaking research by the late Candace Pert in her book, Molecules of Emotion. Her research suggested that peptides (short chains of amino acids) carry emotions throughout the body, and when they are pent up or unreleased they can compromise immunity, hormone function and the nervous system.
In Ayurveda, these unreleased molecules of emotion are called mental ama and are known to block the function of the body, clarity of the mind and stability of emotion. It seems cutting edge science is on a roll, systematically finding the mechanisms for how the mind, emotions and body function as one whole rather than an array of independent parts.