When your mind, body, and emotions are in balance, you feel happier and more at peace. You are better able to remain calm in the face of adverse events and your mood also improves. Now, research increasingly shows that even your physical pain can diminish when you are better balanced.
Studies support the connection between emotions and physical pain. One such study, published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, found essential connections between our emotional state and our perception of pain. In the study, subjects who felt rejected, especially in childhood, reported greater pain levels than those who did not.
This is because emotional states like depression share the same neural pathways in the brain and the spinal cord as those that lead to pain, causing signals to overlap. As a result, emotional pain can manifest in physical pain, even though there is no apparent physical injury or source.
Another study, published in the Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Journal, explored the connection between emotional experience and physical pain from a physical therapy perspective.
In this study, researchers found that the experience of pain often set off a vicious cycle. Physical pain makes us pay attention that something might be wrong with our body. The more we think about that pain — particularly if we think negatively about the pain — the worse the pain may feel. We then often suffer from emotional consequences related to our experience of the pain, including feelings of anxiety, depression, and irritability. Finally, we may take a particular action to try to manage the pain. If that action isn’t therapeutic, we may make the pain worse, starting the cycle over again.
Steven D’Ambroso, PT, DPT, Multi-Site Manager and Clinic Director for our Dobbs Ferry location, found this research critical to understanding how pain can shape our behavior.
“Pain can contribute to personal life events, chronic injuries, hypervigilance, perseverance, fear, avoidance behaviors and more. This is a great educational article to make patients aware of these conditions and ways to change behaviors around their pain and lifestyle.”
The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) also acknowledges the connection between perceived pain and our emotions in their definition of pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience.” The IASP also notes that pain is “a personal experience that is influenced to varying degrees by biological, psychological, and social factors.”
The Relationship Between Pain and Depression
Experts find a strong connection between chronic pain and depression. If you have chronic pain, you are three times more likely than the average person to struggle with depression or another mood disorder. And, if you have both depression and chronic pain, your pain levels are often more intense than levels reported by those who suffer from chronic pain alone. Each condition worsens symptoms of the other, constantly feeding a vicious cycle that becomes difficult to break.
Numerous studies also support the connection between childhood trauma and chronic pain. If you experienced abuse or trauma as a child, you are at an increased risk of developing chronic pain, depression, or other mental health issues as an adult.
If you do struggle with depression as an adult, you may feel pain without understanding what is causing it. Health professionals often find that depression is at the root of unexplained back, joint, or muscle pain, headaches, gastrointestinal pain, and overall body pain. In fact, unexplained pain sometimes leads to a formal diagnosis of depression.
A licensed physical therapist (PT) can help you break the endless loop of pain and depression using exercise and other treatment approaches. Some physical therapists also incorporate cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) into treating pain and depression. CBT strategies can help you transform negative thought and behavioral patterns that are causing disharmony in your mind, body, and emotions.
Physical Therapy Does More than Heal the Body
Physical therapists are movement experts skilled at improving a patient’s mobility, strength, range of motion, flexibility, and more. They often treat chronic pain issues, seeking to identify and treat the source of pain.
A carefully designed physical therapy treatment plan addresses the mind and body holistically, using a variety of active and passive exercises and treatments. During active therapy, you control your body movements, while in passive therapy, you receive a treatment administered by your physical therapist.
Regardless of which type of therapy you receive, the core of a physical therapy program centers on exercise and stretching, pain relief techniques, reduction of inflammation, improved circulation, and improvement of balance, gait, and posture.
In addition to these benefits, exercise also triggers the release of endorphins, which are natural hormones that reduce pain perception and increase feelings of well-being.
As you learn to manage pain and work to regain functional mobility, you can achieve a greater sense of control over your body, which can help reduce negative emotions and thoughts.
Besides exercise, other physical therapy components and modalities may include:
- Relaxation techniques
- Hot or cold therapy
- Aqua therapy, which is often more comfortable for those in pain
- Therapeutic massage and myofascial and connective tissue release techniques
- Iontophoresis to deliver medications through the skin
- Electrical stimulation to block pain signals and improve circulation
- Ultrasound to reduce inflammation, relieve pain, and increase circulation
- Light therapy to accelerate the healing process
- Postural, gait, and body mechanics training
How You Can Help Your Mind, Body, and Emotions to Heal
You enjoy your highest sense of well-being when you are in balance mentally, physically, and emotionally. Even pain and setbacks are more manageable when the way you think, behave and feel is in sync.
Working with a physical therapist and other health professionals can make a dramatic change in the way you perceive both emotional and physical pain. Taking personal responsibility for your role in the healing process is equally critical.
When you take an active role in your recovery, you refuse to be a victim. Instead, you are focused on making the changes you need to be healthier and happier. Once you actively commit to healing, positive changes begin to happen.
Consider some of the following ways to heal your mind, body, and emotions.
- Practice meditation or mindfulness. A study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that subjects who practiced mindfulness-based meditation reported significantly less pain intensity than those who did not practice mindfulness.
- Get enough sleep, but not too much. Healthy sleep is essential to emotional and physical health. Here are ten tips for healthy sleep from the Mayo Clinic.
- Practice deep breathing. Deep breathing not only oxygenates the body but also triggers your relaxation response. When your muscles are more relaxed, your sensation of pain and negative emotions can decrease. See eight deep breathing exercises to reduce anxiety.
- Try positive thinking techniques. Watch or read uplifting stories and reduce your exposure to negative news, movies, and TV shows. Spend time outdoors, connecting with nature.
- Practice yoga. Many studies find yoga effectively reduces stress, anxiety, and depression and improves energy.
- Consider acupuncture. Results of a systematic review of randomized controlled trials found acupuncture “can significantly reduce pain and depression.”
- Eat well. Commit to a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and proteins. Avoid refined sugar and processed foods. Drink recommended amount of water daily.
- Exercise regularly. Commit to the home exercise program your physical therapist has designed for you. Stay physically active.
- Engage in activities you enjoy with positive people. Express your creativity through dance, music, art, writing, or any avenue that appeals to you. Imagination lifts the mood and enhances healing.
- Keep a gratitude journal. When you focus on what you are grateful for, you are happier, calmer, more relaxed, and sleep better.
Trust MOTION Physical Therapists to Transform Your Life
Since 2015, MOTION has provided transformative physical and occupational therapy services to clients of all ages. At MOTION, our mission is to improve the quality of your life and help you get back to what moves you. We want each client to live a life as free of limitations as possible.
We understand how pain, negative thoughts, stress, and fear can interfere with your quality of life. That is why we address both the functional and emotional needs of your body while we work to reduce or eliminate your pain.
Guided by our values of compassion, empowerment, integrity, and teamwork, we promise we will not stop until we accomplish our mission to help you live your best life.
It is important to make patients aware most states do not require a physician referral to see a physical therapist, so feel free to contact us directly to book an appointment or learn more about our services.