Pain and negative emotions: is there a relationship?

Can a state of emotional malaise be so deep and prolonged that it also becomes a painful physical manifestation? Science says yes, even with regard to intimate pain: dyspareunia can be closely linked to the mind or that is, have a physical origin and become a psychological discomfort.

“The pain that we do not relieve with tears can make other organs cry”
(Francis J. Braceland)

Our specialists collaborated in the writing of this article

A period of great stress, and here is that on Friday evening, when it is time to disconnect for the weekend, a big headache appears . Just a coincidence? In other cases, when there are situations of tension, it is the stiff neck that causes trouble: you stiffen, freeze and are full of pain . Just bad luck?

In general: we know that pain and emotions are connected to each other but it is difficult to determine exactly how . We do not know how and why pain can worsen emotionally difficult situations or how the opposite occurs, that is when a discomfort or discomfort turns into physical pain.

Pain and influence of the mind

The psychological origin of pain is a topic that has been of interest to Western culture for a relatively short time, a little over half a century. In oriental culture, on the other hand, the question of personal well-being has been placed at the center of a more general concept, which also involves the environment, relationships, satisfaction. The so-called holistic disciplines, that is, those that affect the entire ecosystem of the body, were born many centuries ago and today they are increasingly recognized and practiced because the connection between physical well-being and freedom from pain is less and less mysterious.

On the other hand, it is very easy to identify the sensory component of pain since pain is in effect an experience that concerns emotions and that puts them in the foreground. It is no coincidence that “the psychological studies of the last 50 years have led to the introduction of the concept of pain as a multidimensional experience in which ethnic, cultural, social and religious factors can interact with the sensory component and the psyche of the individual to generate an experience unique and complex “(Marco Lacerenza, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, San Raffaele Turro Hospital, Milan, Psychogenic Pain, Review).

More simply: pain is a manifestation that develops and is identified through many different factors and which affects both the body and the mind .

Does pain cause negative emotions? …

If there is a painful stimulus, there is usually a psychological counterpart that feeds on what the cerebral cortex registers. A continuous and constant pain causes mental illness , a flow of negative emotions is generated that can cause more pain and lower the threshold of tolerance .

A pain can make you nervous, it can worry, it can generate a vicious circle that leads to more pain: “In all patients with chronic pain, common psychological reactions are observed such as: depression, anxiety, anger and frustration ” (Lacerenza, cited work).

A clear example of all this is childbirth, a painful event par excellence, in which the psychological component can really make a difference.

Pain precedes the psychological question, it exists in any case, and is physiological in every woman. However, subjective experiences tell of a great variability of “pain”. Is it just a question of endurance and the “pain threshold”?

Generally not: if the event is faced with anxiety and fear, these emotions can generate muscle stiffness: exactly the opposite of what is functional to the dilation of the uterus. Here “the body rows against itself” helping to make labor longer and more painful.
If, on the other hand, the environmental component, the culture, the beliefs of the woman approaching childbirth, lead her towards a situation of mental comfort, then the natural and physiological pain of labor can perform its function without impeding relaxation and the flow of positive emotions that make everything more fluid and faster.

… Or do negative emotions cause pain?

Just like the story of the chicken and the egg, however, there is also a direction contrary to the flow we have just described, and that is when it is negative emotions that generate pain.

direct connection between psyche and pain that can be found for example in popular folklore : let’s think of the “evil eye” or “witches” capable of generating pain in other people with the power of conditioning alone. So we find the same mechanism also in the African or South American Voodoo tradition and in who knows how many other popular traditions from all over the world.

Modern psychology, after scientific tests and studies, has even elaborated a list of specific clinical characteristics of a pain generated by an emotional conditioning, a psychological discomfort or something that does not directly concern a physical pathology:

  • The pain starts suddenly and increases over time
  • The pain is not relieved with changes in posture or with movement
  • The consequences of the pain, the discomfort felt, is disproportionate to the clinical disturbance that has emerged
  • Presence of other disorders, especially related to the sensory sphere (numbness of the limbs or tactile discomfort, disturbed vision, changes in taste or smell, tinnitus or hearing disturbances)

Intimate pain (dyspareunia): how much is it related to the psyche?

Here we enter a truly multidimensional territory, as Lacerenza says, since speaking of dyspareunia we are dealing with love, intimacy, the affective sphere but also a specific and complex organ of our body that has a medical relevance and that can be the object of problems that generate pain.

If you have doubts you can read these articles:

  • What is dyspareunia
  • Causes and consequences of intimate pain
  • Pain after love: what it is and what to do
  • Pain during sexual intercourse in menopause

Having clarified that we are not talking about a psychosomatic manifestation and that is that this type of pain really exists, we must however be equally frank in saying that very often the fact that pain occurs in a psychologically delicate moment such as menopause, has its importance.

The dictionary prepared by the Center of Clinical Psychology and Sexology of Rome, in fact, excludes the psychological origin of dyspareunia if it appears after a diagnosis of Vulvo Vaginal Atrophy but contemplates the hypothesis that all the symptoms could get worse precisely because framed in a context of tension and relationships that can become more difficult due to a complex change such as menopause.

Seeing your body changing, your mood changing, having small, very frequent ailments in menopause ( vaginal dryness , small leaks , etc), some small ailment signs of passing time and seeing sex as a topic now distant ( although it shouldn’t be ), they can increase the tension and make things worse.

Pain and psyche: the solution is in love and listening to oneself

In this article we have tried to explain in a simple and short way a very complex universe that binds the body and physiological universe with that of thought .

It is clear that specialist medical reflection is required to deal with any manifestation of discomfort that causes pain . This is why, if you are faced with the uncomfortable consequences of dyspareunia (decreased desire, arguments with your partner, pain itself, other related ailments) you must listen to every message your being throws at you and pay it due  attention.

This implies a visit to the gynecologist, clear and frank, in which you can tell without fear what happens to you. This is why if you feel embarrassed with your medical history, you can ask for a second opinion or go to another specialist ( here you have a list of gynecologists near your home ).

Feeling comfortable with your doctor and taking your ailments seriously is the first step to getting better. Along with a diagnostic path, you can also face a psychological path to learn how to trigger a process of transforming your discomfort and pain into something different, to give a purpose to your change.


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