If you’re hurting emotionally, or have been in emotional pain for some time – and if you have similar patterns to what I used to have – chances are the emotional pain you’re experiencing might feel all-encompassing.
Frankly, at this moment, that probably is your truth – the hurt, the pain, is so intense that it feels very real (and it is – what you’re feeling is absolutely real), and quite unbearable.
That being said, I promise you, this is just a tunnel and there’s light right outside.
So, How Long Will This Emotional Pain Last?
The duration of your emotional pain will broadly depend upon three factors: one, what specific emotion you’re struggling with; two, how important the event – that’s caused the pain – is to you; and three, what skillset you have to work through the untoward event and your seemingly messy emotions. Of the three, the first two factors are more or less out of your control – you can’t choose what emotion should arise in you, & you can’t dictate how life should unfold. But the third, that’s the key – cultivating a strong, effective skillset to be able to understand, process, and release emotions, no matter what life throws at you!
What We Know About Emotional Pain
Both fear and anxiety influence pain…anxiety increases pain…repeated fear experiences can elicit anticipatory anxiety, thereby contributing to persistent pain.– Pain and emotion: a biopsychosocial review of recent research.(1)
There’s been a growing body of research(2) that shows emotional suffering is perceived by the brain in the same way as physical pain.
Emotional pain doesn’t have a universally accepted definition. According to an article published in Very Well Mind(3) by psychologist and professor, Elizabeth Hartney, “No matter what the cause, this psychological pain can be intense and significantly affect many different areas of your life.”
A study(4) conducted by Sachs-Ericsson, et al., in 2017, stated:
We determined through mediation analyses that ACEs were linked to an increase in anxiety and mood disorders, which, in turn, were associated with an increase in the number of painful medical conditions.– When Emotional Pain Becomes Physical: Adverse Childhood Experiences, Pain, and the Role of Mood and Anxiety Disorders.
Simply put, these researchers found when something adverse (the study above focused on specific ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences, like, verbal and sexual abuse, and parental psychopathology) happens, it tends to lead to emotional distress, which in turn is associated with physically painful conditions.
Have you heard of Broken Heart Syndrome? Ilan Shor Wittstein, M.D, Director, Advanced Heart Failure Fellowship at John Hopkins, says broken heart syndrome occurs when(5), “a person experiences sudden acute stress that can rapidly weaken the heart muscle.” – a stressful event is its cause for up to 70% of the patients.
What Exactly Is Emotional Pain?
It may be hard to put into words what emotional pain really is – but we have enough evidence, both, anecdotal and research-based, to say that while it may not be caused by physical reasons, it is as real as physical body-based pain.
Here’s an attempt at defining Emotional Pain: When unpleasant emotion(s) becomes unbearable to the extent that your thoughts and physiology are negatively affected for a consistent duration, it is likely you’re experiencing some intensity of emotional pain.
There’s a reason we have phrases like, “my heart sank”, “it breaks my heart”, “it makes my heart flutter”, etc., – all pointing to the connection between emotions, thoughts (concepts), and physiology.
Emotional pain can be mild, and we may call it discomfort. Or it may be intense, and we may struggle to give it a name.
There can be a plethora of symptoms depending on various factors, like your attachment blueprint, social norms, and individual temperament. Here’s an inexhaustive list of potential symptoms:
- Regular anger outbursts
- Struggle with perfection and control
- Crying for no apparent reason (v/s going through loss, or grief, or some known cause)
- Increased pessimism (v/s the person’s usual temperament)
- Incessant anxiety
- Constant self-criticism and judgment
- Physiological discomfort (racing heart, palpitations, headache, nausea, etc.) with no physiological cause.
- Shutting down
- Decreased social interactions (v/s the person’s usual temperament)
- Change in day-to-day functionality – being hyperactive, or underactive (v/s the person’s usual temperament)
- Engaging in regular risky behavior
- Suicidal thoughts &/ attempts
- Eating disorders
- Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
- Constantly feeling worthless
- Needing to please everyone around you
- Repetitive self-doubt (despite evidence saying otherwise)
It might seem that emotional pain comes in when we are struggling with one or more of the above-mentioned symptoms. In fact, mainstream psychology would say, for example, that people with BPD struggle with intense emotional pain.
However, on deeper analysis, you’re likely to find that BPD is developed because they didn’t have the resources to resolve their emotional pain.
So the way I see it, many psychological issues stem from unresolved emotional pain.
Causes & Duration
While on the surface it might seem that the cause of our emotional pain is outside of us – in the form of an event that occurs – in reality, if we were to pause and think deeper, we’ll realize that while the trigger may have been outside, it triggered something on the inside.
The apparent cause of emotional pain could range from someone disagreeing with you to losing someone to death. Emotions – both pleasant and unpleasant – are a part of the human condition.
While emotions are the norm – and emotional pain is a part and parcel of experiencing emotions – chronic emotional pain is not.
Some inner causes that lead to the experience of emotional pain:
- The habit pattern of overthinking (also referred to as rumination).
- The all-or-nothing lens, also called black-and-white thinking where either everything is good, or everything is bad.
- Similar to the above is magnifying the unpleasant and minimizing all the other things in life that are going well.
- Limiting belief systems of “I’m a bad person”, “I’m not worthy”, “I’m not good enough”, etc.
- Unresolved traumatic experiences.
Note: This isn’t an exclusive list, rather it’s a list to give you a picture of possible inner causes.
The intensity and duration of emotional pain vary from:
1. Emotion to emotion,
2. Situation to situation, and
3. Person (or, their skillset) to person.
For instance, multiple research studies(6) have found sadness to be the “longest emotion”. So if an event makes you feel sad, and the sadness becomes overbearing for you, since sadness lasts “longest”, the emotional pain you’re feeling is likely to last longer.
Continuing with the above instance, if the event was a movie night with a friend that got canceled at the last minute v/s if it was losing a close friendship, the duration of the emotional pain is highly likely to be longer in the second case.
Staying with the same example, if this event happened in the life of someone who struggles with anxiety and/ or depression, and/ doesn’t have emotional wisdom skills, they are likely to have a long struggle in resolving their emotional pain.
Does Everyone Feel Emotional Pain?
Everyone, who is human, with a brain structure that senses emotions and feels emotions. Everyone who feels emotions will sooner or later feel emotional pain. Whether or not they allow themselves, consciously or subconsciously, to experience it is another story!
How intensely, and for how long, one feels the pain depends on what resources one has, like:
- Emotional wisdom skills, like, effective belief systems, tools to snap out of overthinking patterns (or rumination), self-regulating the nervous system, connection with the body to observe the sensations and build emotional tolerance, etc.
- Other healthy practices, like, eating well, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, engaging in some form of regular exercise, spending time in nature, and having a reflective practice.
- Social support of family members, friends, community, and the society at large.
- Professional support of a coach, therapist, guide, and teacher.
Dr. Joe Dispenza is one of my favorite authors. He has combined ancient wisdom with quantum physics & neuroscience, and given us Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself! It gives you the conceptual understanding along with a practical toolkit to shift things from deep within yourself. No wonder, it has raving reviews! Give it a read.
Can We Reduce The Duration Of Feeling Emotional Pain?
While we have no control over what emotions arise in a situation, or what situation arises in life, we do have full agency over how we choose to be with whatever comes up by cultivating effective resources like the ones mentioned above.
In a research report(7), Greenberg and colleagues present the more complex sequences involved in facing emotional pain.
Key aspects of facing pain are allowing the experience of “brokenness,” or a “shattering” of the self, feeling the associated painful emotions, and processing them to completion. This promotes a transformation in view of self, world, and other.– An emotion-focused approach to the overregulation of emotion and emotional pain.
While not every situation may feel as intense, the same sequence can be used for most emotionally difficult situations:
- Acknowledge the experience (say, of disappointment) as true for you – yes, this situation is making me feel (disappointed).
- Accept the unpleasant emotion(s) – yes, I’m feeling ____, ____, ____.
- Allow it all to be – without trying to “fix” it – with acknowledgment and acceptance, and support its processing & release.
Note: This process has more nuance than just 3 statements (steps) to it, which is beyond the scope of this article, and may need working with someone who can guide you through it.
- Emotional pain is real and valid. In fact, the brain processes it in the same way as it does physical pain.
- How long it lasts will depend on what emotion you’re struggling with, what the situation is, and what skill set you possess.
- Emotions and emotional pain are a natural part of the human condition, though chronic emotional pain is not.
- Unresolved emotional pain is at the root of many psychological issues.
- We can learn effective skills to reduce emotional pain.
If you’re struggling with intense emotional pain, please reach out for support. Isolation increases our sense of shame and feeling like “there’s something wrong with me”. Reaching out for support is a big step in resolving the pain.
Sometimes, when going through intense emotional pain, you may not be in a place to reach out. If that’s currently true for you, I want you to know that that’s okay too.
Like always, I’d love to read your thoughts/ questions/ suggestions in the comments box below!
(1) Lumley, M.A., Cohen, J.L., Borszcz, G.S., Cano, A., Radcliffe, A.M., Porter, L.S., Schubiner, H. and Keefe, F.J. (2011), Pain and emotion: a biopsychosocial review of recent research. J. Clin. Psychol., 67: 942-968. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20816
(2) Eisenberger, Naomi I. PhD. The Neural Bases of Social Pain: Evidence for Shared Representations With Physical Pain. Psychosomatic Medicine 74(2):p 126-135, February/March 2012. | DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182464dd1
(3) How Emotional Pain Affects Your Body, By Elizabeth Hartney | Verywell Mind
(4) Sachs-Ericsson, N.J., Sheffler, J.L., Stanley, I.H., Piazza, J.R. and Preacher, K.J. (2017), When Emotional Pain Becomes Physical: Adverse Childhood Experiences, Pain, and the Role of Mood and Anxiety Disorders. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73: 1403-1428. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22444
(5) Broken Heart Syndrome, Expert: Ilan Shor Wittstein, M.D. | John Hopkins Medicine
(6) Verduyn, P., Lavrijsen, S. Which emotions last longest and why: The role of event importance and rumination. Motiv Emot 39, 119–127 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-014-9445-y
(7) Greenberg, L.S. and Bolger, E. (2001), An emotion-focused approach to the overregulation of emotion and emotional pain. J. Clin. Psychol., 57: 197-211. https://doi.org/10.1002/1097-4679(200102)57:2<197::AID-JCLP6>3.0.CO;2-O