5 Ways To Differentiate Between Physical & Emotional Pain

Written by Jessica Moy, DPT
Jessica Moy, DPT, is a doctor of physical therapy, certified yoga instructor, and feminine embodiment coach. She holds a Doctorate of Physical Therapy at the University of Maryland Baltimore and earned her Bachelors of Science degree in Kinesiology from the University of Maryland College Park.

Image by Emotion Matters / Stocksy

Have you ever suffered from a physical pain but there was no apparent injury or trauma? Sometimes pain can come on from biomechanical stressors such as sitting for too long at your desk, but other times pain can stem from other types of trauma that don't always start with the physical body and may seem unrelated. Ongoing emotional or mental stress can trigger responses in the body from a biochemical level that is not necessarily detectable or immediate. When you're in pain, sometimes the worst aspect of it is not knowing where it stems from and how to resolve it. 

Here’s what you need to know and what you can do.

How emotional and mental stress affects the physical body.

More and more studies are being conducted to show that the body and mind can't be separated and are in fact one united front to our environment. Every time our body perceives stress or a threat to our homeostasis or balance, it triggers a chain reaction that increases body reactions meant for survival mode. While this was great when humans were running from tigers as cavemen (or can be useful in times like competitions or presentations), long term this response is not great for our everyday well-being. 

When looking at chronic or ongoing emotional stress lasting longer than three months, this can result in a dysregulation of our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system, or HPA axis, that is in charge of our body's stress response. This has been shown to be related to other physical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, and obesity

How to listen to your body and decrease the effects of stress.

Having pain in addition to feeling stressed can be confusing and frustrating, but oftentimes when you start to target one, you can typically create positive changes in the other. By starting to develop the skill of listening to your body, you will not only know what it needs but can mitigate your risk of developing some of the other more serious diseases I mentioned in the future. While the outlook may seem grim, you can take back control of your own body by identifying what sensations are normal day-to-day occurrences that just may take some movement or sleep to shake off and what sensations run a bit deeper.

I've found these tools and practices to be the best jumping-off point for getting to the root of pain—pain that could very much be manifesting as a result of emotional or mental stress: 

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1. Start body scanning.

In our daily lives, we oftentimes can be so busy that we don't take a minute to check in with our bodies and notice if anything seems off from the get-go. In the morning when you wake up, try doing a body scan. Close your eyes, start by focusing on your toes, and continue to shift your focus as you work your way up your body all the way to the crown of your head. Instead of labeling things as painful or non-painful, just notice them as sensations. By not attaching any judgment to specific parts of the body, we initiate our top-down processing—using our thoughts to mediate responses in the body. Then, in the evening, do another body scan and see what's different.

2. Experiment with yes and no feelings.

I like to use this exercise because it helps you tune in to the "gut feeling" that leads our body's intuitive power and can help teach you what actions are causing you diseases versus the ones that are contributing positively to you. 

Start with easy tasks, foods, or activities that you know you like or don't like. When you encounter one of them, notice how your body feels. If it's an activity you like, does your body feel vibrant, excited, looser? If it's a food you don't like does your body start to feel queasy; do you get chills? These are data points that will lead you to start listening to your body from an intuitive standpoint. You can start with these easier tasks and then scale up to relationships, jobs, or other aspects of your life that need some deciphering. Your body will tell you—you just have to listen! 

3. Vary your movements throughout the day. 

As I mentioned earlier, some pains may just be from sitting or standing for too long at your job or just for too long at one time. By creating more variability throughout your day, you may be able to alleviate some of those lesser sensations, which in turn will clue you in to some of the bigger ones you may be experiencing. I recommend starting by stretching, changing positions, or going for a quick walk every 30 to 45 minutes. If time intervals don't work for you, maybe every time you have to send an email to a specific person or check your phone, go for a stroll. 

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4. Take an Epsom salt bath.

Epsom salt baths are an amazing way to alleviate any aches and pains as well as calm the nervous system. Pure magnesium chloride flakes are a great way to amp up your bath and truly feel the effects of floating. Let the body soak for at least 15 to 20 minutes, and maybe use this time to do another body scan and see how you feel. If you don't have a bath, taking a hot shower and adding some essential oils like eucalyptus or lavender can be extremely calming physically and mentally. 

5. Do a five-minute appreciation meditation.

I've worked with a lot of clients that have suffered extremely traumatic injuries or were born with disabilities, and your perception of your body can have pronounced effects on your body's responses to work for you and not against you. When you start to positively affirm what your body can do and view it with appreciation, this can rewire the brain to create a more positive interaction with you and your environment through neuroplasticity. It takes two to five minutes to begin cultivating this practice. 

  • Start by homing in on your breath and notice its quality on your inhales and exhales. 
  • Begin to appreciate what your body has done and is doing for you, starting from your feet to head.
  • Stay with this feeling, or think back to an experience when you were so grateful for something your body has done, whether it was digest your favorite pizza or carry you through a marathon.
  • Take that gratitude and surround every part of your being, even the parts you may not be comfortable with.
  • Most importantly, start to feel in your body what it's like to be grateful and not just say it.

Starting a conversation with your body starts to put the power back into your hands instead of feeling helpless or like you need some to tell you what you need to do. This will definitely be warranted in some cases, but at least you can get your body's consent first and make your journey a team effort. 

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