Emotions and Physical Pain: Which Causes Which?

Being in physical pain is no fun. I think we can all agree that when we’re in physical pain, we tend to feel sad, frustrated, and possibly a little anxious. But, does the relationship work the other way as well? Can feeling sad, frustrated, and/or anxious cause you to feel physical pain? This potentially causal relationship is something I’m quite interested in because it is something that I am currently experiencing for myself.

A few years ago my mom had her sister and her cousins over for dinner while I was home on a visit from New York. We somehow got on the subject of natural healing and ended up in a discussion around joint pain. One of her cousins shared his own personal story with us and, at the time, it was pretty mind-blowing. He said that for a few years he had suffered from terrible joint pain, especially in his hands. He went from specialist to specialist and nobody could help. They had plenty of pain medications to offer, but no explanations. He was young, in good health, and refused to believe that he just developed arthritis out of nowhere. Meanwhile, his pain continued to get worse. He somehow found his way to a natural doctor who assessed his symptoms as a whole and asked some more personal questions about his life. This holistic assessment proved to be extremely useful, because the doctor pointed out that his emotions were out of balance and that this could be having an effect (or, rather, a cause) on the joint pain. During this period of time filled with joint pain, he was also experiencing some emotional pain on the home-front in his marriage. He was unhappy in his marriage and had yet to accept that fact and/or make any changes. Fast forward to when his marriage ended- the joint pain disappeared. Poof! This story has never really left me because I remember at the time thinking to myself, “I wonder how many people think they have life-long arthritic pain that could be helped with emotional healing.”

Now back to the present moment, I am currently going through a major shift in my life that has brought on a lot of sadness and uncertainty and is requiring me to trust that everything will work out how it is supposed to in the end. These emotions aren’t overwhelming me like they would have done in the past, but they are still present nonetheless and I am very aware of them. And, as of 2 days ago, I have one more thing to add to the list of things I’m feeling– joint pain. I have injuries in my knees and hips that I have been working with for a few years so I am no stranger to joint pain, but I know how to recognize my different kinds of joint pain and can usually pinpoint where they have come from. This pain right now is not my usual pain. I typically have pain around my knee cap from tendonitis or pain near my torn meniscus or tenderness from doing too many yoga poses on my knee, but this pain is different. My joint feels completely inflamed and so stiff. When I went to yoga this morning the stiffness was so bad that my first few lunges felt like I was asking my legs to do the impossible. Inflammation and stiffness are of course the main symptoms of arthritis, but I don’t have arthritis.

I 100% believe the joint pain I am currently experiencing is related to my current emotional state. I hopped online to see what research was out there on the subject and coincidentally stumbled on a lot of articles that examined the causal relationship between emotions and physical pain, but in the opposite direction that I was looking for. Most of the scholarly work published on this subject focuses on patients of arthritis who then experience depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders as a result of the arthritic pain. Now, I am in no way denying that this relationship can and does exist. It’s logical that being in constant pain could cause emotions like sadness and fear. But I do think the causal link needs to be researched more in the opposite direction.

Outside of the academic world, there are a number of spiritual teachers/healers that discuss this subject, namely Louise Hay. Louise Hay is a pioneer of sorts on this subject because she began discussing the connection between the emotional mind and the physical body long before it became mainstream and acceptable. Her first book, Heal Your Body, thoroughly discussed the mental causes for physical ailments and since that book she has gone on to continuously write and lecture on the subject, oftentimes sharing her own struggles with physical ailments that stemmed from emotions, including cancer that she successfully healed. Dr. Wayne Dyer was another well-known motivational speaker on this subject, and also connected his teaching with his own experiences. He had experienced a great deal of leg pain in his life and also experienced a healing of the pain that was spiritual and emotional.

As long as we have spiritual teachers like Dyer and Hay and their respective organizations producing information on this subject, we are in a better place, but I think the world needs a push for a greater acceptance of this in the whole medical field. Physical symptoms and ailments need to be looked at holistically in order to be fully addressed, and that means looking into the emotional states of patients.

Have you ever experienced physical pain that stemmed from emotions? I would love to hear your experiences and thoughts on this.

9 comments

  1. Great article I agree that emotions and how we food with them have a great deal to do with our physical well being.
    I recognise those legs.

  2. Migraines!! I have a rough idea what emotional struggles cause mine but haven’t pinpointed it enough to prevent them. I had an interesting experience a few years ago while doing loving kindness meditation at the niggly start of a migraine and the migraine pain just disappeared! I had the strange sensation/visualisation of a tiny balloon deflating in my head where the pain was. I have tried many times to heal the pain again in the same way but without success. Fascinating topic though. I believe the majority of physical pain is caused by our emotions. I read a quote somewhere about the body being the mind in 3D, which I think explains the mind/body connection well 🙂

    1. thanks for sharing your experience, Emma. That sounds incredible- that you actually visualized the balloon deflating. The idea of the body being the mind in 3D is so true.

  3. Hi Sheeva, I def. agree with you about that causal relationship. I’ve had frozen shoulder twice (adhesive capsulitis), and although it goes away after three months or so, it’s terribly painful. Especially at night, so loss of sleep = more pain and stress and inability to cope, etc.

    I’m aware that the second round of it began at a time of very high stress in my life. Peak stress. I know that inflammatory conditions (especially autoimmune ones, and I have an AI condition) are often triggered by stress, so this is no surprise to me. My way of looking at it is that the stress (basically unresolved emotions) caused hormonal imbalances, and that in turn caused the inflammation.

    I’ve read some stuff about how emotional/psychological/even birthing trauma cause specific physical illnesses or vulnerabilities, and that the parts of the body where they occur correspond directly to specific unresolved emotions. So far, that approach hasn’t led to any grand spiritual or personal insights for me.

    Thanks for writing about this!

    1. Shannon, thanks so much for sharing your experience on here. That’s great that you were able to see all of those connections in your own body. I have also read some stuff about emotional traumas and corresponding body parts. I myself haven’t been able to tie certain emotional events in my life to specific body parts/pain, but I know Louise Hay has written a lot on the subject and it has helped many people.

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