When emotional pain becomes physical pain

In yoga we try to become more aware of the mind-body connection, and sometimes that connection means that emotional pain is manifested in a physical way.
I was reminded of this when my children’s great uncle passed away recently. One of my children fell onto their knee and proceeded to limp about for four days. A doctor’s examination and an X-ray revealed nothing more than a bruised knee. Yet, my child insisted that the pain was intense and the limping warranted. I’ve no doubt that my kiddo was in actual pain. But after some talking, we agreed that some of the pain was a bit misplaced: my child was in emotional pain over the loss of a beloved family member, and the knee provided a physical, observable manifestation of that pain. In other words, the heart was sad but the knee hurt. After the conversation, the limp almost immediately improved because the source of the deepest pain had been addressed.
For me, this experience emphasized the importance of addressing emotional pain. Failing to do so can result in a slew of physical woes like achiness, nausea, muscle tension, headaches and more. I should be clear that even when the source is emotional, the physical experiences are absolutely real. It’s just that addressing the physical pain may require a two-pronged approach — one prong addressing the emotional root and another addressing the physical experience. Studies suggest that addressing the physical pain may even help with treating the emotional cause.
If you’re experiencing physical pain or discomfort along with sadness, stress, or anxiety, remember this whole-body approach to recovery. Moderate to severe symptoms obviously necessitate a visit to a doctor or other medical professional, but milder symptoms may benefit from some or all of the practices listed below.

  1. Talk to someone. A trusted friend or therapist may be able to help you unpack your emotions. This in turn may allow you to work through whatever feelings may be the source of your pain.
  2. Meditate. Even a few moments a day of intentional quiet time could help you acknowledge the emotions you’ve been ignoring and maybe even identify the source of these emotions.
  3. Engage in a gentle yoga practice that helps you relax. Many people hold tension in their hips or in their shoulders and back. You may find that when you focus on your tightest areas emotions or memories bubble up to the surface — especially during long holds. It’s actually not unusual for people to cry unexpectedly or feel waves of intense emotions when focusing on these physical areas. The theory is that when we are in fight or flight situations, we tense our hips or shoulders. As we work to loosen the tension in these areas, we unleash the emotions so often suppressed during stressful moments.
  4. Engage in vigorous exercise. When I’m feeling anxious or approaching depression, I find that a vigorous practice helps counteract jitteriness and the sluggish malaise that accompanies depression. I respond particularly well to hot yoga, cardio, and weight lifting when I need a pick-me-up. Though yoga doesn’t fix all my problems, it has often helped me see a path out of mild depression.
  5. Go for a walk. Going for a walk can be a great way to clear the mind and allow new energy to flow through the body. Plus, when we walk, we are (hopefully) rarely multitasking. Use this uninterrupted time to quiet your mind and see what rises to the surface.
  6. Breathe. Focused breathing can help slow your heart rate and calm your mind. To experience these calming effects, try this in a quiet room: Be still and close your eyes. Breathe through your nose on a four count, holding your breath at the top of the inhalation. Then, breathe out of your nose on a four count. Repeat this inhalation-exhalation several times. With every inhalation, focus on stabilizing the belly while lengthening the spine and the crown of your head toward the ceiling. With every exhalation, focus on releasing the muscles in your face, chest, and shoulders.

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