Written By :

January 13, 2023


Painkillers, prayers, naps, and crying perhaps, we all deal with pain in different ways, whether that be emotional or physical pain.

Have you ever sat on the bathroom floor crying trying to silence your tears after a breakup? A lot of us have been there, emotional pain is no joke and it can have high impact repercussions on us. That is not to undermine physical pain, breaking your hand is no joke as well.

What is pain? Why do we differentiate between physical and emotional pain? How does our brain read pain?

If you’ve ever wondered, tag along!

What is Pain?

Pain can be differentiated into different types, and within those we have subtypes. However, a general overview for pain is presented as follows.

Physiological Pain

Emotional Pain

Also called psychological pain or mental pain. It is more stigmatized in our communities and taken less seriously than physical pain.

It has always been a tricky concept to define, emotional pain is abstract, you feel it but you cannot see it, your wounds don’t bleed but they exist and so, here are some definitions by researchers defining that type of pain:

Emotional pain is as serious as physical pain, it can lead to serious mental disorders such as chronic depression but even if it didn’t, it can be damaging and isn’t always easy to deal with. And as much as it is personal it is also associated with others in a lot of cases, especially in grief.

Emotional pain is as serious as physical pain, it can lead to serious mental disorders such as chronic depression but even if it didn’t, it can be damaging and isn’t always easy to deal with. And as much as it is personal it is also associated with others in a lot of cases, especially in grief.

Chronic Pain

The term chronic refers to anything that persists for a long period of time, a lot of illnesses can be chronic, for instance cancer or asthma.  Some go to define it as pain persisting for more than 3 months.

Chronic pain is any pain that a patient feels for a prolonged period of time that has exceeded the time that it usually takes for pain to dissipate and someone to heal. It is mostly known in neurological damage as they cannot regenerate however it can also be seen in emotional pain as is the case in chronic depression.

Does pain affect the brain? How so?

Chronic pain and changes in the brain

A study has looked into the brain and how it is affected by chronic pain specifically investigating the cognitive and emotional factors. The results have shown that there is an association with brain change. Before we look into the results, let’s look at the brain.

The brain is composed of white matter and grey matter, the grey matter is composed of the cell bodies, the axon terminals and the dendrites. The white matter is composed of the axons. The main difference between those two areas is that:


Pain catastrophizing is when someone has a hard time trying to shift focus from the pain, so their attention is fully on the pain, and it can also take form of considering non-painful stimuli harmful or dangerous. Let’s continue

DID YOU KNOW – On resilience, pain and the brain

Resilience has been found to be associated with clinical pain, it acts as a protective factor for pain and patients who portray traits of resilience have been shown to display lower clinical pain. However, resilience is highly dependent on sociodemographic factors as it differs from one culture to another.

As for the brain structures related to pain, the volume of those can be affected by resilience, we have a part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex, this part of the brain is mostly concerned with processing sensory and motor signals namely those associated with movement, it is displayed below highlighted in blue:

When it comes to pain, this part of the brain receives pain input, and when it comes to resilience, a thinner somatosensory cortex was associated with high resilience.

Another key region in the brain associated with reliance and is key for pain processing is the right amygdala, displayed below:

It’s important to note that the amygdala that you see here as a little round sphere is located inside the brain, and we have two amygdalae, one in the right hemisphere of the brain and another in the left hemisphere. The right one is in blue in the second picture.

So why is it a key region for pain processing and resilience?


Women are more resilient than men!

Is the brain really the source for pain? Can it be the heart?

As scientists have studied pain, they have always contributed the main source of origin to the brain, however, pain can be emotional, it can have associations with social aspects, so is it always the brain?

The heart brain

The brain is formed of countless neural connections, the heart however is known to be a muscle, what’s interesting though is that the heart also has a mini brain, it has neurons and neural connections just like in the brain and thus it has its own system. What does that mean for pain?

The heart connects with the brain and they send signals back and forth, however the heart is more powerful with 40 to 60 times more electrical power, and the heart sends more signals. The heart with all its power does actually act as a source for a lot of the emotional pain. The reason behind that is that emotions and stress are mainly determined by heart rate variability.

Does your brain differentiate between physical and emotional pain?

It’s a poet’s muse to compare emotional pain to physical; this doesn’t come out of the blue, it has to mean something.


The heart reads emotional pain the same way it does physical pain, we’ll look more in depth into this, but next time you come across emotional pain, remember to treat it as seriously as you would a normal injury.

Depression and Pain

The relation between depression and chronic pain has been known to show high associations, but did you know that the brain in 80% of the cases reads depression the same way it does physical pain?

How was that discovery made?

Research on brain mechanisms is ongoing, but thirty years ago before having the machines that can show us brain activity, physicians discovered that specific doses of antidepressants can actually ease chronic pain! To explore more, researchers looked into those antidepressants in our recent times. Some of their findings are presented as follows:

There are neurotransmitters in the brain which are mainly responsible for mood, those are serotonin and norepinephrine; these are found beyond the brain areas and thus can actually cause physical pain in depressed patients.

The common brain regions

Let’s look again at the brain, we have two parts that are mainly play a role in the recognition and processing of pain whether that be the emotional or physical:

Anterior Cingulate Cortex Right Ventral Prefrontal Cortex
Pain alerts this area
Dissipates emotional pain when activated
Sends signals to other brain parts for the individual to stop the pain
Improves pain in case of placebo (triggers that are not real, used for psychological reasons)
Activated in social rejection (emotional pain)


Throughout this piece you have been exposed to the fact that emotional pain is coded similarly in humans to physical pain, did you wonder what might be a reason for this similarity?

Well, humans in their nature are caring especially since they tend to be caregivers to their infants, caregiving is necessary for their survival, and so whenever they feel excluded or rejected, the brain is alarmed and reads it as a pain response. The pain here is also similar to internal pain.

Heart person vs. Mind person – Is it real?

Have you ever discussed with your friends whether you are more of a heart person or mind? Some of us would like to think we take more rational decisions than emotional and thus tend to describe ourselves as mind over heart people.

Some others feel as though they go with that their emotions are telling them even though they know it isn’t the right decision. Let’s consider going back to your ex an example. Well, this is heart over mind.

The truth

What actually is the reality behind the heart vs the mind? Is there really a distinction between both?

The whole heart vs mind debate is actually more of a myth, they are not mutually exclusive, the heart and brain work together whether it’s in decision making or in processing pain. Emotions cause changes in the heart and in turn in the brain, processing happens mostly in the brain; the heart is more affected in terms of rhythm and blood pressure.

So one might think that taking a rational decision in a situation where emotions come into pay makes them a mind over heart person, well, we’re all mind and heart people!

How can you take care of your brain?

Pain is inevitable, and we are bound to go through experiences that involve physical or emotional pain. While we might not be able to fully avoid those experiences, we can take care of our brain to handle better anything that gets thrown at it.

If you are vegan or have a genetic mutation that prevents your body from absorbing vitamin A, then you should take supplements to make sure that your body is not deficient. Moreover, since Vitamin A is fat-soluble, it is recommended to be careful with consumption because it may accumulate and store in your body and cause toxicity.


When we talk about pain and the brain, we are talking about critical issues in the human life, whether it’s a principal organ or a principal feeling. It’s really unfortunate that we have to go through painful experiences but that’s life, and as John Green says “That’s the thing about pain, it demands to be felt”

If you are ever going through a painful experience that painkillers can’t handle because it’s that deep of an emotional wound, know that you are not alone. And that we have beautiful brains wired to deal with such situations. It all gets better, be patient, take care of yourself, your heart and your brain.

Heal beautifully and until next time!

Written By :

January 13, 2023