Americans seem to get a great deal of comfort and clarity when we are presented with statistical information. Whether it’s ‘the number of people who died from Covid 19 today’, ‘the number of new cases’, ‘how long it will take for the vaccine to be distributed’ are some we’re accustomed to hearing these days. These are concrete, measured and statistically-based facts. These are things that are observable. We use these facts to prove what we consider realities.
While we certainly need statistical information, I think it is important to appreciate that there are so many profoundly deep wounds happening every day because of this epidemic that don’t lend themselves to factual measurements. People are describing their pain, their fears, their losses. These experiences are intense, strong and sometimes overwhelming. People can be interviewed and data can be collected from those interviews but is not quite the same as being able to take a blood test or do a CT scan to show the legitimacy of a condition.
There are blogs and articles written by professionals and even scientists describing the emotional pain that is sweeping our country and invading our homes and communities. At least these can provide some credibility to us when we are trying to validate and legitimize our emotional responses to all that is happened in these last nine months. It can help us be more compassionate and empathetic towards others who are struggling with their own emotional turmoil. Just because we can’t see it and measure it scientifically doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Not being able to provide empirical data that leads to measurable, scientific conclusions can make it more challenging to acknowledge and affirm the realities of emotional pain and subsequent mental health issues many are experiencing today. It also exacerbate the pain of people who already struggle with previous emotional pain. When something can be statistically defined, it somehow seems more real and legitimate. It is not open to speculation or question.
As soon as we say we are feeling a certain way, we are in the world of subjectivity as opposed to objectivity. It’s hard to define, measure and legitimize the impact as something that is concrete. This can create doubts as to the legitimacy of feelings and their impact that can lead to issues around chronic depression, anxiety, and abilities to function as one functioned before all this began.
Research out of the University of Michigan suggests that not only does the brain process rejection like it does physical injury, but that personality traits such as “resilience” are vital to how we process pain. The brain’s natural painkilling response varies between humans, with some releasing more opioids during social rejection than others, meaning that some have a stronger – or more adaptive – protective ability.
When an opioid is released, there is a trigger in two areas of the brain, one (the amygdala) processes the strength of the emotion, and the other (the pregenual cingulate cortex) determines how your mood changes because of the event. Therefore, the more opioid released, the greater reduction in pain – and possibly a greater experience of pleasure when someone feels…
It may be difficult to understand the specific neuroscientific explanations in articles like this. However, we can appreciate that the brain has a very similar response to physical pain. It releases neurochemicals which in turn have an impact on a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
I think we can conclude that there are physiological and therefore measurable reactions our bodies have to the stresses and losses that we are experiencing emotionally in these days of Covid. Please know the many feelings that you are experiencing are real and the impact is both physical and emotional. Emotional pain is just as legitimate and sometimes even more painful than physical pain.
Invitation for Reflection:
- What have you noticed about your own emotional pain and other hurtful feelings and sensations that most likely are the result of this lengthy pandemic? To what extent do you know that these reactions are just as legitimate as reactions to physical injury?
- Does knowing that the brain has a similar reaction to emotional pain as it does to physical pain bring you some sense of comfort and reassurance?
- How can you use this information to provide compassion, comfort and encouragement to others?
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute