I consider myself lucky that I’ve never been a victim of mental abuse. Neither have I been a victim of domestic violence or rape. But I have intimate and long-term knowledge of constant, physical pain and what that does to the brain.
I’ve also been lucky that I haven’t suffered from major depression, constant anxiety, or PTSD. Yet there are plenty of pain patients who suffer from these mental illnesses, whether it’s from chronic pain itself, or a history that might include some form of abuse.
But just because I’ve been lucky in these respects, that doesn’t mean I don’t fear that the pain will eventually drive me insane. What will my brain do to keep me sane? In the future, could I suffer from a disassociative disorder, or even schizophrenia?
Many doctors (and all insurance companies) don’t seem to grasp the fact that the brain treats emotional and physical pain in the same way. It doesn’t matter to the brain if the pain is physical or mental, the human response is the same. The medical industry thinks there’s a difference, claiming mental pain is subjective, while physical pain is objective. But that’s only because they’ve found ways to measure physical pain, while measuring mental pain is in its infancy. And really, measuring physical pain is also in its infancy, as measurements like the 1 to 10 pain level test clearly illustrate.
I don’t believe that I suffer from more pain than someone who suffers from mental illnesses like drug addiction or depression. Just like my pain can cause suicidal thoughts, so too can these mental illnesses. While the drug war rages on, we may not discover if the treatments are the same for both physical and mental pain, but there’s enough of an overlap to believe that they can.
In fact, the medical industry’s lack of understanding of chronic pain is partially responsible for the increased rates of drug abuse and addiction. Sure, it’s easy to prescribe pain medications to treat physical pain — after all, there’s “proof” that the pain exists. But alone, these treatments don’t address the mental weight of dealing with constant, debilitating pain. The same could be said for an illness like depression — just treating the depression doesn’t make up for not treating the physical pain that usually accompanies it.
The brain can’t tell the difference between mental and physical pain, so using treatments that dismiss one or the other will only be partially successful.
This study was not done in order to promote acetaminophen and other analgesics as psychoactive drugs. Rather, the idea was to emphasize that over the course of evolution, our bodies decided to take the economy route and use a single neural system to detect and feel pain, regardless of whether it is emotional or physical. While it may be a good idea to take a pain reliever in the acute phase of feeling physical and emotional pain, no one is proposing this a long-term cure for dealing with hurt feelings and grief.
Pain, of course, is always both a physical and an emotional experience. If I stub my toe, in addition to the physical pain, I am likely to be also angry or disappointed with myself or with someone else who is convenient to blame (Why did you leave that box in the hallway where I couldn’t see it until I hurt myself? Now look what you’ve done!!)…