Can Emotional Distress Cause Physical Pain?

UVA Pain Seminar

I recently gave a lecture at the UVA Pain Clinic Support group where I discussed a natural approach for pain relief. My lecture was entitled “Getting Past Pain Naturally”. I will give a summary of my lecture in this web log entry.

For people who are suffering from chronic pain, the first step is always to evaluate the possibility that basic dietary and lifestyle factors need to be addressed. Chronic pain can become an easy excuse for neglecting health basics such as preparing healthy meals daily, exercise and movement, good quality sleep, proper digestion, and avoidance of unhealthy lifestyle habits including smoking, caffeine intake, refined sugar use, and alcohol use.

Experiencing chronic pain can make people stray towards convenience and comfort foods which are not necessarily the most healthful. Because it often hurts to move, chronic pain can discourage any kind of exercise program or even simple stretching. Pain can often prevent sleeping as well as promote addictive habits and the use of substances including alcohol, tobacco, sugar, and caffeine. All of which can keep people stuck in chronic pain by preventing the body from healing the deeper issues.

Appropriate stress management skills are crucial for individuals who are experiencing chronic pain. The concepts of Chinese medicine tell us that emotional and mental stress can rapidly affect the organ systems and can cause physical distress of the organs as well as physical pain in the body.

Within the system of Chinese medicine, each organ system in the body is associated with a particular emotion. There are seven major emotions that correlate with seven major organ systems. For example, the lungs are associated with feelings of sadness or grief. What this means is that when someone overindulges in experiencing feelings of sadness, these emotions could harm the physical tissues of the lungs. Conversely, when someone has lung disease this could give rise to feelings of sadness and grief. The other organs and their associated emotions include Kidney organ system and Fear, Heart organ system and Joy, Stomach/Spleen organ system and Worry/Pensiveness, Liver organ system and Anger, and the Gallbladder organ system and Fright.

There is certainly a healthy way to experience emotions. Feeling emotions is part of life. Sometimes we feel anger, sadness, fear, or worry. It would be considered healthy to feel these emotions on occasion. Emotions are fleeting. They come and go easily. Depending on a variety of circumstances, different emotions can arise. What’s healthy is that we do not get stuck on any particular emotion. We neither “feed” the emotion nor “swallow” it. Feeling an emotion and letting it go is a normal and natural part of being alive. As humans we are meant to experience feelings of contentment, peace, happiness, and joy most of the time by default. It is our normal healthy state to experience this kind of emotional stability on a day-to-day basis.

Emotions can lead to physical pathology and pain when they are experienced in an unhealthy fashion. When we wallow in our emotions, suppress our emotions, or overindulge in feeling certain emotions. For example, some people can work up a good rage. They can become over-involved in feelings of anger. Instead of letting the feelings pass or addressing the issues that are causing the feeling to develop, they hold onto the feelings as long as possible. In their minds they turn over and over again the thoughts that lead to the feelings of anger for a period of days, weeks, or even years. This is a kind of pathological behavior that can lead to sickness. Silent, smoldering anger that is felt habitually for years can result is a stroke or heart attack, not to mention physical pain in any part of the body.

I learned at the pain clinic that those individuals most susceptible to experiencing chronic pain often have a history of physical and emotional traumas and insults. It is indeed possible to internalize the conflicts and tensions that occur during the course of a normal life. One of the questions that was asked during the lecture is “how can we help people who are suffering so much from chronic pain and also suffering from extraordinary and unpleasant life circumstances.” Pain and negative pathological emotions can feed off each other in an unending cycle.

Breaking the cycle between stress, emotions, and physical health is crucial for proper stress management and healing from symptoms of chronic pain. In every moment, we have a choice as to where to focus our attention. It doesn’t matter what is going on around us, we are still free to bring our attention to anything we choose. For example, we could focus our attention on the events and circumstances going on around us and outside of us that are seemingly beyond our control. We could focus on other people, their actions, words, and behaviors. We could focus on our negative feelings and thoughts. Or we could choose to focus our attention in a way that promotes stress relief, pain relief, and healing. Focusing attention on positive thoughts and feelings can help to break the cycle between emotional pain and physical pain.

In addition to resolving emotional blocks, addressing poor dietary issues, and improving exercise and lifestyle habits, a natural approach to healing chronic pain can include the use of herbal medicines, nutritional supplements, homeopathic remedies, and acupuncture. The benefit of using a natural approach to pain management is that there are few if any side effects and low potential for addiction or dependence on the medicines. Unlike conventional pain killer drugs which must be tightly regulated to protect against drug dependance, tolerance, and addiction. Natural medicines can be used to treat the whole person including the physical, mental, and emotional levels. Therapies are meant to stimulate the body’s own natural healing force in order to reduce pain and improve function. Naturopathic physicians are experts in the use of natural therapies. If you are interested in learning what naturopathic medicine can offer you, please make an appointment to visit your local naturopathic doctor.

Dr. David Zeoli, ND
Phydos Clinic
1011 E. Jefferson St. #204
Charlottesville, Virginia 22902



  1. Roman Richards says:

    Good article.

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