MHAW 2021: Supporting others through pain and emotional stress

By Synergy Health | 15 September 2021

My heart is breaking, my head feels like it is being crushed, my stomach aches so bad. Emotional stress is felt throughout our body, it is not just limited to our over-worked mind. As people are tragically losing loved ones, losing their jobs, and losing their sense of control during and post this pandemic or anytime, we can expect them to feel real pain. 

It is important to understand that the person who is experiencing this type of physical reaction from any loss is not simply going through a challenging time, for them, it is a comprehensive and all-encompassing tragedy. And they are feeling it in every way possible. 

woman crying on floor leaning against a bed with her head in her hand

They are not making it up, they are not being overly dramatic, they are not being precious or seeking attention. They are truly feeling the loss in every sense. They are fully connected, mind and body, which indicates that they need your help more than ever before. 

Although our brain doesn't process emotional pain and physical pain identically, research on neutral pathways suggests there is substantial overlap, therefore, our reactions to pain are very similar regardless of it being from a physical or emotional cause. 

The sensation of physical pain is not imaginary because intense emotions activate the pain centre in our brain close to the limbic system. Pain is received by the thalamus before being sent to the cerebral cortex for processing. This process causes us to feel genuine pain in the same way that we feel pain when we break an arm. 

Furthermore, neuroscience demonstrates that negative emotions like anxiety, stress, depression, and anger amplify the pain. 

Validation is what psychology suggests works to reduce the emotional state of another person, and it does work extremely well. Validation is unbelievably effective at reducing the emotional impact on another person. In crisis negotiation terms, we call it acknowledgement, acknowledging that what the person is going through is very real.

An emotion that is expressed is disarmed. An emotion that is acknowledged is more so. And, an emotion that is share is unconditionally disarmed. 

Conversely, invalidation can be destructive to the person feeling physical pain. Telling someone who is feeling physical pain from an emotional experience that: it is all inside their head; they need to snap out of it, there are many worse off than you; or that you aren't willing to discuss it, will only make things worse for the person. 

Words of support engraved on a park bench

So, what can you do to help someone who feels physical pain from an emotional event?

The same things that you would do if you were to help someone who had a physical injury because that's what they have. 

Sit and listen, not sit and talk

Let them express how they are feeling and truly listen to their words.

Validate and acknowledge

Say that what they are feeling is very real and very normal.

Be there with them

Don't just be there for them, also be there with them at every step.

Make a plan

When the time is right, sit and write out a plan of action, their plan in their words, for what they can do to overcome their situation that has caused the loss.

Work at their pace

Don't push, don't rush, don't help by doing it. Let them help themselves to provide them with a sense of hope. 

woman leaning against a fence with her head in her hands wearing a face mask

Unfortunately, the ongoing repercussions from the pandemic will last longer than we would wish it to. Many of us are going to need genuine support, the support of those around us. We are community creatures who are wired to look after each other, starting from our family, to our friends, to our colleagues, and then to those who we may not know. 

If you are feeling the physical pain from an emotional event, know that you are normal and that you aren't making it up. The pain you are feeling is felt the same regardless of the cause. 

hand holding a scrap piece of paper with phone a friend written on it


Source: Lance Burdett, Specialist in Communications, Safety and Resilience

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