Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/18/2022
Like bodily pain from a physical injury, emotional pain is a natural part of life. Unlike physical pain with physical symptoms, it’s not always clear how to treat it. And for those around us, it’s not always clear that we’re in the midst of mental pain in the first place.
Think about it — when you skinned your knee as a child, broke a bone, or injured yourself playing, there was a wound, a scar, or something that wasn’t moving the way it was supposed to. These same things happen with emotional pain; they’re just harder to see.
When we deal with physical pain, we treat injuries, address the source of the pain with painkillers, and promote the healing process. The same, in a way, should be true of emotional pain.
Read on to learn how to deal with emotional pain, and better yet — how to stop emotional pain when it happens.
Emotional pain, emotional distress or psychological pain is simply that: a pain that affects your emotions or psyche.
Emotional pain is often caused by traumas — things that are violent or sudden, like accidents and break ups.
It helps here to compare emotional pain to physical pain. We understand when physical pain happens due to an illness or an injury, and we understand that injuries take time to heal.
We also know that serious physical injuries can cause emotional injuries in the form of emotional trauma — a condition whereby something profoundly upsetting or hurtful causes lasting damage and further injury just from thinking about it.
We know this condition as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (And this is something that can sometimes lead to extreme emotional pain.)
As mentioned above, these emotions and the resulting pain, mild or severe, can come as the result of lost loved ones, ended relationships, shame, guilt, anger or fear. Any negative emotion can cause us pain.
And when we experience that emotional pain, it may appear in the form of one or many symptoms.
Symptoms of emotional pain can vary.
Emotional trauma symptoms, for instance, often take the form of the symptoms of anxiety, with insomnia, trouble focusing, sadness, anger and recurring negative thoughts as commonly reported effects.
At the severe level, this may impair your daily function, reduce your quality of life, and even begin to mess with your perceptions and impair your reality.
You might even see emotional pain manifest as a racing heart, headaches, fatigue, sweating, stomach and digestive issues or unease.
Dealing with emotional pain may be possible on your own, but it will likely take a concerted effort on your part, and as the level of emotional pain becomes more serious, the fact is that your ability to do it alone becomes less and less realistic.
Certain emotional pain, including the pain that comes from trauma, will typically diminish over time. Things like break-ups and the loss of loved ones will continue to hurt, but they’ll hurt less, as time progresses.
Emotional pain in these cases cannot be numbed or medicated away, especially not by substance abuse. In fact, you should entirely avoid self-medication while dealing with emotional pain, serious or otherwise.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says that your first duty when dealing with emotional pain should be to the care of your mind and your body — creating routines for when you eat and sleep. Sticking to those routines is crucial to preventing worsening of effects (as is exercise, while we’re making a list).
Keeping yourself busy and on a routine has an additional benefit: It means less time alone with the thoughts causing the pain.
This is a reason that, in severe cases of emotional trauma, experts advise you to spend as little time alone as possible. The NIMH suggests prioritizing activities and quality time with friends and loved ones, until you begin to feel the pain lessening.
Essentially, the best way to treat emotional pain on your own is by practicing self care.
But the most important thing in solo emotional pain recovery isn’t how well you do self care; it’s how willing you are to ask for help if things become unmanageable.
The NIMH says that If someone is having chronic sadness, irritability, is crying often, or is impaired by anxiety, they may be in need of additional support.
Without the proper support, it’s possible for someone suffering from emotional pain to seek relief in substance abuse or substance dependency, and in some cases engage in suicidal ideation or suicidal thoughts.
When emotional pain is too much and it begins to keep you from enjoying the quality of life that you deserve, you’re not treating the pain — you’re being overwhelmed by it. In these cases, it’s best to speak with a mental health professional about options for supported treatment.
These options will range greatly depending on your provider and your particular needs, but generally they will all fit into two categories: medication and therapeutic practices.
Medication may take the form of antidepressants, which can vary in formats. You may for instance be prescribed tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for depressive symptoms or an anxiety disorder.
Antidepressants have been around since the 60s, and many forms like SSRIs are considered generally safe and effective for regulating mood.
Therapy, meanwhile, may take one of many forms including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy or others, depending on the root symptoms of emotional pain you’re experiencing, and whether those symptoms paint the picture of a mood disorder or other issue beyond the emotional pain itself. To learn more about the benefits of therapy, check our hers’ guide to therapy.
Emotional pain looks different for everyone, and the way you express or suffer from yours may be entirely different from the way another person interacts with theirs. What makes everyone similar isn’t how, but why.
We react to emotional pain because it hurts. For help with emotional pain and especially to learn how to deal with extreme emotional pain, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional to get the help and treatment you need.
Consider talking to a licensed therapist online, now. Just as with physical pain, it’s possible to stop emotional pain. You just have to take the first step toward care.