According to National Retail Federation estimates, fewer people celebrated Valentine’s Day this year than last, yet they spent more – in excess of $20 billion in this country. As for young adults, nearly half find Valentine’s Day to be their top choice when it comes to popping the question.
Yet for every hopeful story of love, there is sure to be a crushing tale of pain and rejection. As the saying goes, love hurts. In the past few years, psychology researchers have realized that there is a good deal of literal truth in the metaphorical phrases comparing love to pain.
Pain is a universal human experience. We know it. We sense it. It is clearly recognizable to us. We also know that pain caused by love gone wrong is not the same as the actual slap in the face that might accompany a breakup, yet these two types of pain have a shared source.
If lost love leads to a broken heart, it can not only be painful, it can potentially be fatal. Doctors at Johns Hopkins University recently identified a rare but lethal heart condition caused by acute emotional distress. The condition is known technically as “stress cardiomyopathy,” but a more common description has emerged: “broken heart syndrome.”
Surprisingly, there seems to be no universal clinical consensus on what is and what is not pain. Psychologists believe that physical pain has two separate components: a sensory component and an affective component. The sensory component transmits basic information about the damage, including its intensity and location. The affective component provides a qualitative interpretation of the injury. Pain can also be a lie in that it does not always equate to a representation of physical damage.
According to an article by behavioral science reporter Eric Jaffe in Observer, published by the Association for Psychological Science, it is not quite accurate to say that physical and social pain are the same. Some research suggests that social pain can actually be much worse over time. While the physical characteristics of pain (stabbing, aching, burning, etc.) may go away, the memory of lost love can linger over a lifetime. At the same time, for all the hurt love causes, it has an equally powerful ability to heal.
As WellBeing blogger Dr. Claire Richardson points out, the clinical community used to think the brain had a sort of blueprint – one part responsible for sight, another for hearing, another for sensation and so on. This blueprint was preset and mapped out the same in everyone. What has since been learned is that the brain is adaptable and changeable. “If your brain’s area for taste is damaged,” says Richardson, “it has the capacity to change the neurons somewhere else to pick up where the damaged area left off.” Pain is an output of our brain, she says. It is also a defense mechanism. The brain determines the emotion we attach to each painful experience. Feeling calm and safe and connected to others can minimize pain. Negative emotions tend to have the opposite effect.
In an NPR report, David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, notes that there are many people with terrible-looking MRI or CT scans who have no lower back pain. Conversely, there are people in incredible pain with nothing to be seen on their scans.
Linden tells the story of Dwayne Turner, an Army combat medic in Iraq who received the Silver Star for valor. In 2003, Turner was unloading supplies when his unit came under attack. He was wounded by a grenade, which left shrapnel in his leg and his side. But he didn’t notice that he had been hit and began giving first aid and pulling other soldiers to safety. As he worked, he was shot twice. One bullet broke a bone in his arm. Yet Turner would say later that he felt almost no pain.
“Soldiers in the heat of the moment don’t recognize the pain that’s happening,” Linden says. “But once that moment is over, those same soldiers may feel a lot of pain from something minor, like a hypodermic needle.”
Science is still struggling to understand precisely how the brain regulates the perception of pain and how some people can teach their brains to filter out things like chronic pain. What we do know is that if you can change the input, you can alter the output.
This is why such discussions on the nature of pain are important. Studies show that once people understand how pain works, a lot of their fear and anxiety regarding their pain and what it potentially means is alleviated.
Commenting in a recent trend report on the clinical site Practical Pain Management, Dr. Tina L. Doshi of the pain medicine department at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine writes: “The medical community has shifted away from the simplistic view of ‘pain as symptom’ to a more sophisticated understanding of ‘pain as disease.’ Pain is not just an unfortunate consequence of some other pathology; pain is the pathology, and there is now greater awareness that pain management needs to be just as comprehensive, coordinated, and customized as treatment for hypertension, diabetes, or cancer.”
Such a shift is perhaps our greatest hope in stemming chronic pain in this country and bringing to an end the opioid epidemic.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.