We’ve all been there at one time or another. Something bad happens in our lives, we are feeling sad, hurt, angry or another strong negative emotion. Then a friend or family member tries to “help” us by telling us to look on the bright side, or to cheer up because things will get better.

While these positive words of encouragement are meant to help us overcome our emotional pain, the reality is they may be having the opposite effect. They could be preventing us from examining the root causes of our emotions, essentially masking our feelings by jumping to “think positive.”

The same principle applies to our physical health. You’re out working in the yard, you hurt your back, and when the pain doesn’t subside, you visit the medicine cabinet for a painkiller.  

The medication may provide some relief — but that’s not the same as your back being healed. You’re simply masking the pain with the medication, which you become acutely aware of when you stop taking it. Often the pain will continue to be present until you either heal on your own or seek out the type of help that actually addresses the pain at the source. In the meantime, you might make the situation worse by continuing activities that aggravate the original injury rather than caring for it directly.

Mind-Body Connection

The danger of masking acute emotional and physical pain in the short-term is that they can both become long-term problems. If you have both types of pain, one can make the other worse and vice versa. For example, the strain of repressing our emotions, and keeping them down, rather than working through them properly, can create or increase tension in the neck or back, headaches, chest pain, stomach pain and other issues. Left untreated, these emotional wounds can cut deeper until they dominate our lives in the same way physical pain can dictate the activities we do – or don’t do – each day.

Worse yet, long-term pain has been shown to contribute to additional health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke on the physical side; major depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder on the mental side. Part of the reason for this mental and physical downward spiral is because both chronic pain and chronic stress activate the same parts of the brain and can change the wiring of our brains for the worse, making it more difficult to recover emotionally and physically.

Changing the Course

To heal mentally and physically, we must all ask ourselves if we are listening – both to our bodies and to others. Rather than quoting platitudes to someone who is feeling down, we should instead take time to listen and understand what they’re going through. We should allow them to share those emotions without judgment or labeling them, and work through them effectively with courage, kindness and understanding. Addressing negative emotions and thoughts rather than ignoring or judging them helps us attain better mental health. Individuals who address their negative mental experiences feel less negative emotion over time, research findings suggest that this happens because it allows negative thoughts to diffuse more quickly.

Mental or physical pain means our brain is trying to tell us something. Whether the discomfort is physical or emotional listen to it. Seek the care that will allow it to heal at the cause. Avoid shortcuts as it comes back in a variety of ways when it is not carefully examined, treated and allowed sufficient time to heal.

To tackle the root causes, behavioral or mental health professionals can help us better understand our thoughts and emotions and show us how to address rather than judge them, helping us to experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.

On the physical side, non-prescribing doctors, such as doctors of chiropractic, are trained to look beyond the symptom to find the root cause of pain. For example, many times the root cause of back pain might be lack of flexibility which leads to muscle stiffness or lack of balance which leads to falls and additional injury. Millions of Americans also find lasting physical pain relief and stress reduction through drug-free health and wellness services such as acupuncture and massage or activities such as meditation and yoga.

Only when you understand how the pain came to be can you begin to feel better. Explore your pain, find the help and know that caring for it is the best option for your future.

About the author:

Sherry McAllister, DC, is president of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress (F4CP). A not-for-profit organization with nearly 29,000 members, the F4CP informs and educates the general public about the value of chiropractic care delivered by doctors of chiropractic (DC) and its role in drug-free pain management. Learn more or find a DC at www.f4cp.org/findadoc.