brain science

Why Do Emotional Wounds Cut So Deeply?

Almost everyone knows the feeling of an emotional wound, whether it be heartbreak, abandonment, or loss. When someone you love hurts you, often you can actually feel physical sensations that go along with that.

For example, people will say they "have a heavy heart" or "I'm heartbroken" and this correlates to actual physical sensations they feel in their chest.

This blog explores why physical sensations go with emotional wounds. 

While other people can see physical wounding (for example, if you break your leg and wear a cast, people will have empathy for you and ask how it is healing), emotional wounding is often hidden and minimized by ourselves and others.

Many people don’t carry physical scars or wounds from their emotional wounds, and that means other people can't see them right away. Sometimes, people think that it must not be that bad, since there aren’t any physical scars. Some think "I should be able to ignore this." But you literally, physically cannot do this. 

Here's why: 

Emotional pain registers in the same place in the brain as actual physical pain. This leads us to believe that we experience emotional pain the same way we experience physical pain. Let that sink in for a moment. 

Our mind does not differentiate between a physical wound or an emotional wound.

The same flooding of neurotransmitters and pain-relievers occur with both wounds. 

Read this link for more information on the science behind this. 

Emotional pain can cause "dorsal vagal shut down." Do you remember in your Psych 101 class how you learned about Fight/Flight response? There's a third response called "Freeze." It is when the dorsal vagal shuts down, and you can read more about it here. 

Emotional wounds are wounds from/within/of relationships. 

It is a natural need of survival that causes emotional wounds to hurt. In the same way our ancestors had a need to avoid disease and a broken body so as to prevent most certain death, our social support is a threat to our survival as well. From a practical standpoint, humans are more likely to survive in a tribe than on their own. We feel as if we are more likely to have a tribe (ie. friends, a spouse, support within our relationships etc) if we are "acceptable," "good," "worthwhile," or "have something to offer." If we believe that these things are NOT true of us, then we have a physical response as a survival mechanism. These thoughts can create emotional wounds.

Emotional wounds trigger our own shame and fear. 

If we are afraid that we won't be accepted, it feels as if we may not survive. Or, that we will be left alone (it equates to the same thing.)

The process of healing emotional pain is nuanced. Usually the pain has to do with our relationships and our identity. These issues are really close to our hearts, so when we are wounded there, it takes effort and intention to heal those wounds. Most often, they connect deeply with other stories of our past where others have wounded us before. That's like re-opening a physical wound over and over again, and can make them worse and more complicated to heal. Each time we are wounded again, that old emotional wound is reopened and the infection spreads. 

The stigmas and perceptions associated with emotional pain make it even more difficult to seek help. 

The cultural mentality of "suck it up" and "get over it" doesn't allow these wounds to be processed and healed, therefore causing more ache and deeper pain.

Emotional wounds can linger and grow deeper (often times are left untreated and almost stay in an infected way). It seems "easier" to ignore emotional wounds and bury them. But they are always there, and often doing more damage as the years go by. 

Don't ignore your emotional wounds. If you are heartbroken, or have some deep emotional pain that you're experiencing and you want some help, please feel free to contact us.

Take good care of yourself- physically and emotionally. 

The Phoenix Counseling Collective 

Caleb, Elisa, Andy, Kim, & Molly

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash