Sticks and Stones

Many of us remember hearing or saying this as children: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Is this true? How does the body differentiate between physical pain and emotional (social) pain? Or does it?

According to research conducted in the past decade, the two parts of the brain that responds to physical pain are also activated by emotional pain. Much of the same neural circuitry is shared in this piggy-backed region, and, in fact, the brain may not be able to distinguish between the two.

It is also thought emotional pain can be felt more intensely, and lingers longer than physical pain. When recalling a social rejection in our lives, the emotional pain can return, again and again, whereas with a physical pain we recall only that it once hurt. It seems the wounding and scarring of an emotional trauma, though not seen physically, can exact a toll on our bodies, even making some people more susceptible to disorders that cause chronic pain.

So, once social pain has been inflicted, why aren’t we continuously suffering in our recollections of the event? As social creatures, we are uniquely wired. We are fairly adept at keeping memories in their place; we tend not to replay painful memories. Even a casual thought usually isn’t enough to trigger pain alone, it takes recalling the memory in detail. But still, it’s there, a ghost haunting your mind, and the reason emotional pain can be harder to heal.

When we use metaphors like heartbreak, crushed, or burned we can actually feel these things in our bodies. An initial flash of stress hormones is released in both cases, leaving us numbed, and once the initial shock wears off, the pain rushes in, a signal to our bodies that something is wrong. This reaction time is useful to the body when physically hurt, or when dealing with social rejection. Critically injured people have been known to walk and talk despite their injuries. When we are emotionally injured, it helps us to focus on the task of mending our relationships with others, a necessity among social beings.

Another question scientists are studying is whether emotional pain can be relieved by taking an over-the-counter painkiller. Some participants in research studies have shown less sensitivity to social slights when taking daily doses of a painkiller, compared to subjects who were given a placebo. This gives new meaning to the old cliché, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”

As the line between social and physical pain blurs, should we think differently? Physical and emotional pain have always been considered two distinct problems, with different terminology and treatments. People tend to hide emotional pain more than physical pain. Do we as a society inflict social stigma on social injury? Maybe the lesson here is that we should be a bit more understanding of others, show more compassion, and offer a helping hand or a kind word to those in emotional pain. Apparently, sticks and stones aren’t the only things that hurt us.