Emotional pain can feel as present and overwhelming as physical pain. Even if challenging, healing is possible.
Painful emotions are real. They exist on a scale of intensity and can come from seemingly small losses to life-altering tragedies.
Depression and grieving can cause you to experience emotional pain, too.
While sadness can be a part of emotional pain, many other persistent emotions are associated with it, including:
Getting through emotional pain can feel unlikely when you’re feeling it intensely. But it’s possible, and you can find relief.
Emotional pain is real. What you feel is valid.
Research from 2020 suggests emotional pain activates the same regions of the brain that are associated with physical pain. The experience is very similar to injuring your body.
Just as you might consider seeing a healthcare team when physical pain becomes unbearable, sometimes emotional pain requires the same level of assessment.
Speaking with a professional can help when painful emotions:
- make it challenging to complete daily tasks
- interrupt joyous occasions
- impair basic levels of function
- impact your relationship with yourself and others
In addition to professional help, you can also implement techniques that help you deal with emotional pain as you experience it.
The idea is to try to focus on the things you can control or how you might address pain as it happens.
1. Try to avoid false beliefs that lead to more suffering
According to Steven M. Sultanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor from Irvine, California, sadness can evolve into intense emotional pain or depression when a loss is followed by negative thoughts.
Sultanoff calls these thoughts “after the comma” beliefs because they tend to form after the event that led you to hurt.
“With the death of your partner, you think, ‘My life will never be the same,’” he says. This, indeed, can be true for you, and it’s a natural reaction to a significant loss.
But sometimes, your thoughts can fuel your emotional distress if you rely on assumptions or generalizations that may not be based on evidence.
For example, thinking that you can never be happy again might be what you feel at the moment, and it’s valid. But this is something you don’t know will happen.
Sultanoff explains that dwelling on this type of thought could lead you to experience even more intense emotional pain.
By becoming aware and reassessing the negative thoughts that come from your pain, you may be able to cope.
2. Putting a name to what you’re feeling may offer relief
Putting feelings into words, often referred to as “labeling,” may help diminish the intensity of negative emotions.
A 2007 brain imaging study, part of a series of research efforts into the benefits of labeling emotions, found that expressing what you feel in words activates areas of the brain that can slow down the emotional cascade.
Try labeling emotions in spaces such as:
- private conversations with friends and family
- sharing your experiences with a support group
- talking to your pet
The idea is that you describe how you feel as much as possible. For example, you could say, “My chest is heavy, and I feel vulnerable and confused.”
You might also want to ask others to help you create a circle of grief. This can allow you to vent while getting the support you need.
3. Consider mindfulness-based practices
Mindfulness is being fully present and aware of yourself and your surroundings. The concept can be applied to various everyday activities, from meditation to eating.
When you’re feeling emotional pain, you can acknowledge the thoughts and behaviors you’re experiencing. Then, try letting them go calmly.
Overall, research suggests a correlation between cultivating mindfulness in your life and maintaining a sense of mental well-being.
As it relates to managing physical and emotional pain, mindfulness has been identified as an effective method to handle both.
You can practice mindfulness at your own pace during key moments of the day, such as:
- waking up
- sitting by yourself
- completing any task
- waiting (at a doctor’s office, traffic light, making morning coffee)
This means that you’d focus on what surrounds you in the moment or on every detail of what you’re doing. This helps keep at bay thoughts that may fuel your emotional pain.
As part of your mindfulness practice, you can also try grounding exercises. These can help you step away from negative thoughts and intense emotional pain to focus for a moment on your physical sensations.
Painful emotions aren’t always relentlessly intense. You may feel less distressed for periods only to become overwhelmed again when you face painful reminders.
“Emotional pain […] can occur whenever reality fails to live up to the hopes many people entertain over time,” says Romeo Vitelli, a psychologist in Toronto and consultant for Mom Loves Best.
“Major life crises, [like the] death of a family member, divorce or breakup, job loss, or even day-to-day hassles, can all contribute to emotional pain over time,” he adds.
Sometimes emotional pain can’t be easily managed with everyday coping strategies. Vitelli recommends considering more structured approaches to managing emotional pain in the long run.
1. Guided mindfulness
Besides engaging in mindfulness exercises, consider seeking the support of a professional setting. The help of a mindfulness or mental health expert can support your healing process.
These mental health therapy approaches may help you practice guided mindfulness to release and overcome emotional pain:
- acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
- mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
- group meditation
2. Traditional therapy approaches
In addition to guided mindfulness interventions, you may also benefit from other forms of mental health support.
Vitelli notes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and emotionally focused therapy (EFT) are two effective options for managing emotional pain.
CBT is “usually considered the gold standard for most therapists,” Vitelli says. “[It] can help people [with] emotional pain work through their dysfunctional beliefs and develop healthier ways of thinking.”
Depending on the cause of your emotional pain, some medications such as antidepressants and mood stabilizers may also help you manage your emotions.
“It is typically a short-term solution for most people as they develop better-coping methods,” says Vitelli.
3. Lifestyle medicine
Lifestyle medicine refers to addressing core life habits that can help improve physical and psychological health.
It’s a concept generally consisting of practices that encourage:
- balanced eating
- active living
- weight management
- emotional regulation
A large body of
Sultanoff and Vitelli also recommend it to work through emotional pain.
“Exercise regularly,” says Vitelli. “While this isn’t always an option for people dealing with physical pain, physiotherapy classes, aqua fitness, and other forms of healthy exercise recommended by your doctor can help with emotional pain as it occurs.”
You can incorporate aspects of lifestyle medicine through activities such as:
- movement classes
- aerobic activity
- strength and conditioning
If you would like guided options for lifestyle medicine, consider discussing the topic with:
- social workers
- behavioral therapists
- lifestyle coaches
- fitness coaches
4. Sense of humor
“Research supports that the experience of humor reduces emotional pain as it shifts how one feels, how one thinks, and creates bonds with others,” Sultanoff says. “There is strong evidence that three interventions of humor (emotional, cognitive, and social) reduce emotional pain.”
Laughing doesn’t mean you’re disregarding or disrespecting your pain or its cause. Try to look at it as medication to soothe your soul.
Humor and its therapeutic applications have been the source of study for decades.
Research has repeatedly found that humor increases physical pain tolerance through distraction. It also relieves psychological pain by reducing anxiety and preventing negative “after the comma” thoughts, also known as catastrophizing.
You might feel that humor is the last thing you can handle at the moment. That’s natural. However, consider “faking it until you make it.” You could start by exposing yourself to humorous situations or surrounding yourself with humorous people.
Emotional pain often goes beyond sadness and may involve other negative emotions such as despair, hopelessness, and anger.
Sometimes, managing emotional pain depends on what caused it. Grieving pain can sometimes decrease on its own with time. Other types of pain may require professional support.
Self-care can help you heal emotional pain. You can try learning mindfulness and grounding exercises, requesting support from friends, and labeling your emotions.
For long-term emotional pain, you may want to consider seeking the help of a professional who can support you with therapy techniques and medications.