Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. – M. Kathleen Casey
Pain—what an unpleasant sensation. If happiness is the ultimate good, then pain is the ultimate bad. However, if pain really is this unequivocally negative experience, why do we even have it?
From an evolutionary standpoint, pain serves to remind us something’s wrong. Physically speaking, it alerts us to impending damage to our body if we persist with a certain behavior or don’t address a particular wound.
But pain also comes in another form: social pain. Whether it is the loss of a loved one or the ending of a relationship, the severity of this type of pain often matches or exceeds physical pain.
In the brain, both social and physical pain are processed in very similar regions, and because of this, Tyleonl, a drug typically used for physical pain, can also blunt social pain, too. Still, a key difference between the two is the lasting effect.
For example, if you tried to recall the pain of breaking a bone, you may be able to elicit faint echoes of what it felt like. However, if you tried to recall an instance of losing a social connection, you can vividly relive the emotional distress associated with it.
To again speak evolutionarily, social pain is more important in this regard. Because our very survival depended upon the success of the tribe and our social connections, the pain associated with these kinds of losses must necessarily be stronger.
In fact, the pain associated with rejection is so powerful that when scientists map the brain, the image looks almost identical to someone experiencing the throes of drug withdrawal.
Even with their differences, however, both physical and social pain share a similar process of experience.
First, you must attend to or realize the pain. If you’re not paying attention to it—distracting yourself with friends, exercising—you are less apt to feel it.
Second, you must interpret the pain. Although you may believe pain is uncontrollable, the conscious mind can construe the pain to make it more severe—“this physical pain means I’m going to die”—or more amenable—“I have other friends I can spend time with.”
And third, pain depends upon our expectation for recovery. If we believe we should feel better in a day, when really it will take weeks to recover, the intensity of the pain can be artificially amplified.
Because pain is a subjective occurrence, one of the most hurtful things is to have your pain invalidated. However, from a biological perspective, regardless of the pain’s origin—you lost your job, your dropped your ice cream—the same reduction of serotonin and dopamine (the neurotransmitters associated with pleasure) can occur in the brain.
And while you may want to claim it’s impossible that someone experiencing something as trivial as a breakup could hurt that bad, as long as the quantities of serotonin and dopamine are as low as they are, the pain that is felt, that is experienced is just as objectively severe as anything else.
Linton, S. & Shaw, W. (2011). Impact of Psychological Factors in the Experience of Pain. Journal of American Physical Therapy Association. 91(5). 700 – 11