Emotional pain hurts more than physical pain, researchers say
Pain caused by emotional distress is more deeply felt and longer lasting than that caused by physical injuries, according to a new study.
In a finding that calls into question the old saying that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me", psychologists used four experiments to discover how people get over emotional or physical pain.
In their paper "When Hurt Will Not Heal: Exploring the Capacity to Relive Social and Physical Pain", the authors propose recent discoveries suggesting social or emotional pain is as real and intense as physical pain.
The researchers asked participants to relive their past painful experiences by writing in detail what had happened and how they had felt.
In the first two studies, students were asked to relive both emotional and physical pain, answering a series of questions and then recalling in detail an experience of physical injury, or an experience of betrayal by a person who was close to them, or both.
Each experience was to have occurred in the previous five years.
The students were asked to note how long ago the event happened, how much it hurt at the time, how many times they had talked about the experience, and how painful the experience felt now.
Participants in the emotional pain condition reported higher levels of pain than participants in the physical pain condition, found the researchers from Purdue University in the US and Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales in Australia.
The students also reported less pain when they relived the experience than they had reported before writing the account.
In experiments three and four participants were given cognitive tasks with different levels of difficult after reliving a socially or physically painful event.
Again, those in the emotional pain condition performed worse than those thinking about physical injury.
One of the authors, Dr Kip Williams from Purdue, said: "While both types of pain can hurt very much at the time they occur, social pain has the unique ability to come back over and over again, whereas physical pain lingers only as an awareness that it was indeed at one time painful.
"Why aren't we always suffering pain by recollections of social betrayal and other forms of social pain? Because we are pretty good at keeping these memories at bay.
"We had to induce our participants to think about the details of the social painful event in order to get them to feel pain at the present. Merely saying, 'oh yeah, my boyfriend cheated on me once...' is insufficient to cause current pain. They have to steep themselves in the memory, and that's something we don't ordinarily do."