Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How Emotional Pain Can Really Hurt

BBC News ran a story a day or two ago that shows the brain regions that light up when we are in emotional pain. Essentially they have discovered what all of us who have suffered a "broken heart" have always known -- the pain is also physical.

How emotional pain can really hurt

By Vivienne Parry
Radio 4's The Pain Of Emotion

A woman crying
Grief can have physical effects

Love really does hurt, just as poets and song lyric writers claim.

New brain scanning technologies are revealing that the part of the brain that processes physical pain also deals with emotional pain.

And in the same way that in some people injury can cause long-lasting chronic pain, science now reveals why some will never get over such heartbreak.

Emotional pain can take many forms; a relationship break-up or social exclusion, for example.

But it does not get any more extreme than losing a loved one, as Scottish broadcaster Mark Stephen did.

In July 1995 he was driving a tractor while hay-making and accidentally hit his young daughter. She died shortly afterwards

Mark's grief was overwhelming, he says.

"When people talk about a broken heart, that for me was where it was seated, just below your sternum.

"It feels like your heart is leaking and you can't run away from it because you are the source of that pain."

Thinking he would go mad with grief, he sought help from David Alexander.

Professor Alexander is director of the Aberdeen Centre for Trauma Research. He led the psychiatric team that first responded to the Piper Alpha oil-rig disaster.

Since then, he has been involved in helping survivors of many disasters including the Asian tsunami, the war in Iraq and, most recently, the earthquake in Pakistan.

He also managed to get Mark Stephen through his darkest days.

Read the whole article.

What's interesting is that the brain processes emotional pain much in the same way that is processes physical pain, lending more credence to the idea that emotions are body-centered more than brain-centered.

The way people describe emotions also favors that belief: "My head is bursting," "I feel it in my guts," "My heart aches," and so on.

The studies that have been set up to study this are interesting:

Neuroscientist Mary Frances O'Connor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is one of the scientists who have propelled emotional pain up the research agenda.

"We're at a very new time when we can use technologies to look at the brain and the heart," she says.

Naomi Eisenberger at UCLA has shown which parts of the brain are active when we feel emotional pain.

She devised an intriguing computer game in which participants were deliberately made to feel left out.

Simultaneous brain scanning revealed that the pain of being socially rejected was processed in much the same way in the brain as physical pain and in the same area, the anterior cingulate cortex.

What's also really interesting is that this supports the anecdotal evidence that people can actually die of a broken heart. We know that older adults have a greater risk of dying within 6 months of the passing of a spouse, and this research may explain why.
But sometimes physical pain can become chronic, long outlasting its original purpose, and emotional pain is the same.

Mary Frances O'Connor calls it "complex grief" and it occurs in about 10% of people after bereavement.

"They experience a lot of bitterness and anger, that their future is senseless. They don't adapt with time as others do."

There is a very strong suspicion that people who are not adapting to bereavement are also those who experience the greatest levels of physical pain.

But can we die from a broken heart?

Martin Cowie is professor of cardiology at the Brompton Hospital. He is very sure of the answer: "Yes, we can.

"There is an increased risk of dying in the six months after bereavement and it's particularly marked amongst men."

The bereaved are much more likely to be involved in accidents, which is perhaps understandable, but also to die from heart attacks and stroke. The hormones involved in the stress of bereavement make these events more likely.

This knowledge makes it essential to identify and treat those whose emotional pain is likely to become chronic, causing debilitating depression or even death.

You can listen to the podcast of this story at BBC iPlayer for the next seven days.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm surprised that I've made 15 months since my beloved husband passed away.
If it wasn't for the enormous loving kindness of our Heavenly Father.....honestly.......I don't think I'd have made it this far!
He's been my ONLY support, as closest living families on both sides, were none whatsoever.
But, just as I was taut from a small child: He will never leave us or forsake us !
and Boy o' Boy, is that ever the God's honest TRUTH !!!

Sheila Joyce Gibbs

Anonymous said...

lots of love your way