How to Deal with Emotional Pain: 3 Ways to Feel Better Today
Emotional pain can stop us in our tracks. It can feel unbearable—almost physically painful at times—but unlike physical pain, taking a pain reliever and getting rest doesn’t make emotional pain go away. If you’re wondering how to deal with emotional pain, you aren’t alone.
Some emotional pain can stem from a major life change or disruption like a breakup, a divorce, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one. When we can pinpoint the trigger of our emotional pain, it may help us to recognize that it’s part of the natural grieving process. Grief hurts.
Sometimes, though, the emotional pain can feel like it's too much to bear. It may last for months and may start to disrupt our day-to-day activities. When this happens, it's time to reach out for support. Whether the emotional pain comes from a life change or is more nebulous in nature, talking to a professional counselor can get you through. Reach out today to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists so that you can deal with emotional pain in a manageable way.
Why Emotional Pain Happens
Anyone who's experienced the deep emotional pain of a loss or trauma can attest that it hurts. Sometimes that hurt is so intense that it feels physical. In fact, it's not uncommon to experience physical manifestations of emotional pain.
When we're going through an emotional upset, we may have headaches, stomach pains, and digestive issues. Our sleep may be disrupted, and we may find that we're unable to focus on work or our usual activities. As a result, our performance can suffer in our jobs and personal lives.
We may also find that we don’t have much of an appetite, or some people may turn to comfort foods—feeling an almost insatiable desire to eat ice cream, cookies, chips, bread, and other carbs (they trigger "feel-good" serotonin in our brains and help us feel relaxed). Other people may turn to less healthy behaviors like smoking, drinking, or drugs in an attempt to numb and deal with emotional pain.
When we experience emotional pain, we can even experience real, physical symptoms. For example, as discussed in Scientific America's article, What Causes Chest Pains When Feelings Are Hurt?
“According to a 2009 study from the University of Arizona and the University of Maryland, activity in a brain region that regulates emotional reactions called the anterior cingulate cortex helps to explain how an emotional insult can trigger a biological cascade. During a particularly stressful experience, the anterior cingulate cortex may respond by increasing the activity of the vagus nerve—the nerve that starts in the brain stem and connects to the neck, chest, and abdomen. When the vagus nerve is overstimulated, it can cause pain and nausea.”
Those gut-wrenching, heart-achy feelings aren’t in our heads. They’re actual bodily reactions to the emotional discomfort. When we grieve or experience a loss, the physical sensations can be particularly strong and overwhelming.
At the same time, our brains are looking for patterns and reasons for the loss. We may find ourselves going through the stages of grief during a breakup or job loss, just like a death. We might experience "magical thinking” where we believe our thoughts, feelings, or actions might have inadvertently caused something to occur. We may try to rationalize and find a sense of control over the situation. Often, we may look for somewhere to put the blame or think, "If only I'd done something differently."
We may also experience guilt over what happened, or we may find ourselves feeling deeply sad, tired, and listless. It's not uncommon for those experiencing emotional pain to feel overcome with emotion suddenly. One minute we're standing in line at the grocery store listening to a song, and suddenly we're in tears.
During grief, sorrow, and emotional pain, we may also find that we feel anger. We might feel abandoned by our loved ones, unsupported in a situation at work, or enraged at our ex. All these complex emotions can come in waves—one moment we’re fine, and the next moment we’re ready to scream, cry, or both.
Emotional pain is challenging, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. It's essential that we feel grief and allow ourselves space to experience the emotions. However, when we don't know how to deal with emotional pain, or it becomes destructive and ever-present in our lives, it may be time to reach out. Whether our pain happens because of a loss or we're not sure what has caused our pain, a professional can provide the supportive space to talk through our problems.
Should we discover that our emotional pain is caused by depression, or if it’s a reaction to circumstances in our life, we can still find relief. While working with a therapist or counselor, it can also be helpful to try these three techniques to alleviate emotional pain.
3 Tips for Dealing with Emotional Pain
1. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness and meditation are helpful practices for addressing many different mental health concerns, including emotional pain and depression. When we're mindful, we bring our brains back "online" and help ourselves reorient to the moment. Instead of ruminating on the past source of our emotional pain (or worrying about the future), we look at the present. Even if these pockets of mindfulness are brief, they can help us find relief and deal with emotional pain.
Meditation and mindfulness are easy to learn. There are helpful apps out there like Headspace and Calm that can guide us through the process. There are also many resources online, including free videos on YouTube that can help you get the hang of mindfulness and meditation.
Practice mindfulness anywhere—at home, at the office, in the classroom. It doesn't require anything extra. To give it a shot, we can try to take several deep breaths, focusing on the air coming into our nose and out of our mouth. As we breathe, we can observe our thoughts and feelings. Rather than getting caught up in a thought, we allow the mind to acknowledge it and let it flow by.
Unlike depression and grief, which can trigger catastrophizing thoughts, mindfulness helps us feel calm and relaxed. We focus on the here and now rather than asking what if.
We can also try a mindful walk outside. During our walk, we can do a mental inventory. First, focus on what we see for one minute. Next, spend a minute focusing on the sounds we hear. For the next minute, focus on a physical sensation—like touching a tree, rubbing our fingers on a leaf, or taking off our shoes and walking through the grass. Then focus on the smells in the air, like the scent of flowers, trees, cars, even someone's cooking as we walk by. Repeat this sensory inventory for the duration of the walk.
2. Get Creative & Cerebral
Another way to deal with emotional pain is to focus on stimulating our brains in other ways. Therapy can often be part of the cerebral or cognitive approach (hence, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). During CBT or talk therapy, we often identify negative thinking patterns and counter them with a more positive perspective.
But in addition to therapy, engaging our brains in other positive pursuits can help us deal with emotional pain in a positive, forward-focused way. When we're learning about a new subject, reading a book, or attempting something new, we use a different part of our brain. We do not forget the subject of our grief (which is often a fear during a loss—we don't want to "get over" someone we love). Instead, we're shifting our brains a little to allow ourselves a rest and to focus on other thoughts.
Journaling can be another technique to help us get our creative juices flowing and start to help us deal with emotional pain. Write out feelings, compose a letter to someone, or look for journal prompts that can help us explore some of the complicated emotions we’re experiencing.
Other outlets such as drawing and coloring, playing music, dancing, or photography can also be excellent ways to work through emotional pain and sadness. While something like dancing may feel challenging (or even impossible) at first, we can channel some of the frustrations and energy into our movement.
Exercise is a great coping tool and can have other benefits for our bodies as well. Again, the thought of going for a jog may seem absolutely out of our range at the moment. But slipping on comfortable shoes and taking a brisk walk around the block, or even doing some jumping jacks in our bedroom can help us start to see positive benefits and boost our mood.
3. Supplement Support
Grief, sorrow, depression, and emotional pain often feel very lonely. We may believe that no one will understand what we're going through; we may feel guilty like we can't offer emotional support back to our friends, or we may feel like we're worthless and people don't want to be around us.
When our brain is experiencing emotional pain, these irrational thoughts can feel very real and insurmountable. But it’s crucial that we find a support system. A therapist or counselor is an important part of the journey, but friends, family, and other people can help too.
We can look through the people in our lives and choose a few key people who might provide a sense of support and empathy. It's important to remind ourselves that we aren't a burden. Part of feeling better is asking for and accepting help to get us through this difficult time. Eventually, we can pay it forward when we're feeling more up to it.
If we can’t readily identify a friend who could support us, consider a family member, a teacher, a coworker, or someone from church or our religious practice. Emotional support can come from many different places, so explore social circles to find a connection.
Even talking to and hugging a pet can be therapeutic and helpful to get us through a difficult time. We can walk the dog or play with a cat and feel less alone. Animals can also remind us to be mindful—after all, they live in the moment, and it can be an excellent example of how we can shift our thinking too.
Most importantly, realize that if you aren’t sure how to deal with emotional pain, you don’t need to go it alone. There are ways to get the support you need to help you move forward to a brighter future. Reach out today to schedule with one of our practitioners. We're ready to listen and help you find ways to feel like yourself again.