Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Emotional Pain Isn’t Just in Your Head

A new Israeli-US study provides breakthrough in understanding the brain mechanisms that cause physical pain resulting from depression

By: Abigail Klein Leichman

Published: April 18th, 2014 in Health » Israel

Emotional Pain Isn't Just in Your Head

People have always thought of emotional pain as metaphorical — a feeling without a physical source. However, the findings of a new study led jointly by Prof. Gal Richter-Levin of the University of Haifa’s Forum for Brain and Behavior and Prof. Jeansok Kim of the University of Washington shows for the first time that it’s not all in your head.

Emotional pain has a neurological basis similar to physical pain, according to this Israeli-American scientific breakthrough in understanding the brain mechanisms that cause physical pain resulting from depression. This area has never been studied before, even though many patients who suffer from depression describe their emotional pain as if it were physical pain.

The results of the new research, conducted on lab rats by the two professors with their students, were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal. The team proved it is possible to trace neurological processes that form the basis for physical pain resulting from emotional pain.

Fight or flight

The brain’s response mechanisms to fear and tension have been widely researched due to the possible link between the failure of these systems and the development of psychiatric disturbances, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Previous findings showed that during exposure to tense situations, the brain’s amygdala was stimulated by higher brain areas and in turn stimulated areas in the brain stem responsible for reacting to fear and tension. One of these areas on the brain stem, known as PAG (periaqueductal gray), stimulates the “fight or flight” response and is closely related to the experience of physical pain.

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