Mind-body: How mental, physical pain are linked
January 13th, 2011
04:11 PM ET

Mind-body: How mental, physical pain are linked

Maybe it’s because many of us have so much stuff and so many opportunities to satisfy our desires that we crave something more, something deeper, something that would give our lives touch of transcendent meaning.  As a society we’ve come to the point at which more possessions or more fame, or more fortune don’t bring any more happiness. We feel it in our stress levels and know we need something beyond.

Throughout history this yearning for “something more” has been the province of religion, but in the last generation or so, science has entered this domain with impressive results. In fact, if we knew as much about treating cancer as we do about the science of health and happiness we’d be tempted to pronounce the disease cured.

Yet most people know almost nothing about this amazing scientific and medical explosion. This always amazes me, but then I have to remind myself that I know the science of health and happiness only because it is my job.

Starting today on The Chart at CNN.com, we're going to share some of this amazing information with you.

When I tell people that I am a psychiatrist who treats mental illness, but studies the immune system, they usually scratch their heads in confusion because the immune system and the mental world don’t seem to go together. But they do, and the fact that they do has given me and my colleagues an amazing vantage point for understanding how the brain and the body work together to produce disease or well-being, resilience or defeat. Moving forward, I hope to share this vantage point with you in ways that will provide simple, clear options for improving your own health and well-being.

When I tell people I am a psychiatrist who for years got much of his funding from the Department of Religion they again look at me in confusion because religion and science are so often at odds with each other. But when it comes to health and well-being, it turns out that much of what science has discovered validates many ancient spiritual beliefs. I’ve been fortunate in my career to “cash in” on this fact by exploring how ancient meditative practices can be brought to bear to heal mind and body in the modern world. Working with inspirational figures like His Holiness the Dalai Lama has given me a profound sense of gratitude that we don’t have to throw our rational brains out the window when it comes to exploring how the life of the spirit can be used to better our lives.

Each of these posts will be structured around research that provide exciting new perspectives on mind-body issues. So let's start with this example. Have you ever noticed that when you are in physical pain you are more likely to be down and irritable than at other times? Ever noticed that when you are stressed, down or anxious you are more likely to feel pains in your body than at other times?

If not, count yourself either young, lucky or both. For the rest of us, our experiences go along with lots of data showing that physical pain increases the chances of feeling emotional pain, and vice versa. Said more formally, depression is a risk factor for aches and pains in the body, and aches and pains in the body are a risk factor for depression.

Why should this be? Most of us think of the body and brain as very mysterious and complicated, which they are. But in other ways they do things in a very literal and clunky fashion, and the connection between physical and emotional pain is a great example of this. These seemingly very different types of pain overlap because they share the same brain areas. Studies show that exactly the same brain areas light up in the scanner when people are exposed to emotional pain as when they are exposed to physical pain.

In particular there is a brain region called the anterior cingulated cortex, or ACC for short, which fires up whether you are snubbed by other people or subjected to a physical pain.

The physical pain in these experiments was electric shock applied to the hand. The emotional pain was supplied by an ingenious little computer game subjects played in the scanner. Subjects were shown a computer screen and told that all they had to do was toss a little “cyberball” on the screen back and forth to two other players who were also on the computer in the other room. At first the ball tossing goes well but at a certain point the subject no longer gets the ball tossed to him or her by the other “players.”

This exclusion is all a sham because there are no other players—just a computer program designed to make the subjects feel left out.  Even though it is only a game it must remind people of life back on the playground because people get upset. Remarkably, the more upset they get the more that pain center in the brain—the ACC—lights up.

So all this suggested a very ingenious experiment to researchers at UCLA. If physical pain and emotional pain share the same brain areas, maybe giving a painkiller would make people less sensitive to being rejected by other people. So the researchers randomized a group of people to receive either acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) or a placebo pill. Neither the researchers nor the subjects knew who got what, but the people who got Tylenol began to report that they were less hurt by the way people treated them in their daily lives.

And after 3 weeks of either Tylenol or placebo all the subjects played the “cyberball” game in the brain scanner, and lo and behold the people who had received Tylenol showed much less activation of the ACC in their brains.

I’m not sure that the take-home message from all this is that we should be taking Tylenol to keep from getting our feelings hurt,  but rather that science is beginning to show logical explanations for many features of our lives that have been previously mysterious, such as why my stomach hurts when I get  stressed out.

Mind, body, spirit. Resilience, vulnerability, happiness and misery, health and disease. We'll explore these topics and more in  the coming weeks and months, always with an eye to the most recent and exciting scientific discoveries.

Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, is CNNHealth's Mental Health expert. He answers viewer questions on Tuesdays. Watch for future posts on the mind-body connection for better health.

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Barbara J Brown

    What is meant by the Dept of Religion? The source of this professional's money for his interesting research?

    January 13, 2011 at 16:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Moodyme

      "Department of Religion" is an academic department at a university. This guy is a professor. But I raised my eyebrows at that, too, at first. Strange wording.

      January 14, 2011 at 12:22 | Report abuse |
    • Jesus

      You can major in religion at many universities. Courses in;

      Religion Business Administration
      Fleecing the Flock
      Explaining Jesus to the Rational Thinker
      The Philosophy of Fear
      Pedophillia and the Priesthood
      The First Century Mind

      are typical for a religion major.

      January 14, 2011 at 19:42 | Report abuse |
  2. Yogababy

    I personally believe that unprocessed emotional pain, e.g. grief over the death of a loved one, job loss, betrayal, etc., can actually cause physical illness. I've seen this happen ... where life deals someone a severe loss and then they end up with cancer or RA or some thing else that literally stops them.

    A good way to research this would be to work with widows / widowers (particularly healthy ones under 50) and or parents who have lost a child and track them for the next 5 years to see how if there are major health issues, while also tracking those who receive counseling and who actively try to work through their grief and those who don't.

    January 13, 2011 at 19:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. lovehurts

    it's true. my emotional pain caused my sensitivity to many things, including my gluten problem. I became hurt by someone's betrayal which caused all of this that i'm dealing with my skin is bad, my body is bad, i need closure so that i can heal emotionally which will improve my physical well being. I knew everything went together.

    January 13, 2011 at 23:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DIANA

      I am going thru the same thing and I am sorry anyone has to feel this way. I hope you and I both get better soon.

      January 14, 2011 at 16:00 | Report abuse |
  4. Elle

    Perhaps this explains why it's so hard to concentrate when you've been snubbed. And might painkillers be prescibed to bullying victims someday? AND clearly this explains HUGELY why people from dysfunctional families turn to drugs and drink to anaesthetize themselves!!

    Now...how do we short-circuit this part of the brain? Or bypass it?

    January 14, 2011 at 05:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Bob Ellal

    Qigong–Chinese mind/body exercises–helped me beat four bouts of "terminal" bone lymphoma in the early nineties. It's also helped me manage the pain–physical and emotional–wrought by the cancer in the years since. Qigong also is an excellent stress reducer; after consistent practice life's "slings and arrows" bounce off one like pebbles plinking off a breastplate. Clear 14 years and still practicing every day!

    January 14, 2011 at 09:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sarah

    We're about to pronounce cancer cured?!?!? That's quite a bold statement there, even for an opinion piece like this. I have obviously been reading the wrong journal articles. Please tell us more of this miraculous cure for cancer. The "cure" for my cancer was to remove two organs....

    January 14, 2011 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • sam

      Read the article again Sarah, you missed the point the author was trying to make.

      January 14, 2011 at 10:39 | Report abuse |
    • Randy

      He is not saying that cancer is cured at all.

      January 14, 2011 at 12:43 | Report abuse |
    • Carol

      Sam is right, Sarah. The author did not say cancer is cured. The sentence starts, "If we knew ..." and ends with, "we would be tempted to...." Read it again.

      January 14, 2011 at 13:15 | Report abuse |
  7. Vitaliy

    Actors in Russia have known this information for atleast a decade now, and scientists and psychiatrists are just now discovering it...there is a direct between the body and the mind. A 2 way street if you will.

    January 14, 2011 at 10:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. margie

    hello everyone.

    Is stone CLR is the right medicine for galbladder?

    January 14, 2011 at 12:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Ituri

    I've always wondered how my own doctors can say "there is nothing wrong with you" even as I tell them I'm in pain every day. I stress out like crazy, though I try to stay calm and detached to keep it from happening, and my stress starts to exhibit real physical symptoms. My essential tremor goes crazy, I get pain in my stomach and chest, it starts to shoot through my limbs. When I have a particularly stressful time it can take days to recover and gain my strength back. The fatigue can last for weeks even then. I go to the doctor, they test the blood, and there's nothing wrong. Well yeah, not NOW. But what about in the future? I'm a walking time bomb like this, and my doctor rolls their eyes and says to "just relax, you'll be fine." Gee, thanks for the help.

    January 14, 2011 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SomeIdiot

      From the way you describe your problem it sounds like you should be looking into fibromyalgia. Hope this helps.

      January 14, 2011 at 14:11 | Report abuse |
    • Patty T.

      I agree – I have fibromyalgia (I was diagnosed a little over two years ago). It took many doctors and until I got to a rheumatologist, I didn't know what I had. I am now being treated and I have improved about 75%. I suggest going to see a rheumy and see what they have to say. I wish you the best. Nothing is worse than knowing something is going on with your body and not knowing what it is. By the way, it won't show up on a traditional blood test. There's a 14 point trigger test to see if that is your condition.

      January 14, 2011 at 20:40 | Report abuse |
  10. Moodyme

    I think the link among all of these aspects is cortisol. Stress equals cortisol equals pain and inflammation (and visible manifestations such as acne, rashes, etc.) equals depression and irritability equals existential crisis. Been there.

    January 14, 2011 at 14:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Joyce White

    I must say how great to know that this type of study is being addressed.I myself am truly a victom of all these issues.I have Lime's disease&several other severe medical conditions due to the fact of being undiagnosed for about 5 years.I am just 40 years old and I feel like I really have no quality of life.I once had a great family & we loved &respected each other to the fullest.But that all changed soon after my mother passed away at just 58 years old 🙁 She was a blessing from God! I worked for my father for 26years of my life,I worked under so much stress even while I had a pic line in my arm 2 infuse Rocephin(antibiotics) the lst time 12 weeks and then 2 years later a repeat of 7 more weeks.I never felt sorry 4 myself at all,bcause I knew people cared but oh how that changed!My father had always been an verbally abusive man to literally ev.one but somehow I could stay positive and he at times would get me down.In short,I no longer work for him nor do I have any health insurance& little contact bcause he is the most uncaring,controlling person I know.It is soo sad,it just breaks my heart & when we do talk he puts me down as if I were his worst enemy,its almost unbelievable that my own father has truly made me loose ev.thing I worked so hard for,and he has strangers running what was Supposed to be my bussiness as well as my sons! My family always told me he was a sociopath and that money was his God! Well,I know who my God is and absolutely the mind & the body all go hand & hand.It is hard enough on so many with the economy,depression,stress,as well as maybe having an illness.I have dealt with all of them and I know there are many people out there who don't know if there is something really wrong with them and we stress ourselves out and may get severely depressed.Just know there is help out there and put your faith&trust in the Lord and ask him to open new doors,my friend I'm speaking from my very own heart with sincerity and in truth.God wants us to let him do the work for you,he is a jealous God who loves you! But you must ask and believe! I still have trying times and deal with a lot of health issues but I know that God has carried me this whole time and I believe no matter how bad I may feel physically today,that tomorrow is a whole new day and I just try to replace any negative thought or depression,with s.thing positive and most of the time I look around and Thank God for what I do have and not what I don't have.It very much is a lot to do with our thoughts which do affect pain.We all need to think of others as well as show them you are there for that person or people.I pray that this message will encourage you today.
    😉 God Bless

    January 14, 2011 at 15:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Daniel

      Thanks for sharing your heart felt journey with us. I too believe in the write ups to date. I have had severe back pain for close to 30 years. aproxiamately 22yrs ago I was told I had ankylosing spondylitis. This is a form of reumotide artritice. The diagnosis was made on the back of blood test and X-ray. Ten years later the diagnosis was overturned following an MRI scan. This created even greater physical pain and frustration as my 'fall backs' of anti-inflamatories, pain reliefs etc. had now gone.

      The body had to crash – with a so called diagnosis of "Bi-polar" in 2005 – to get to chat with a counsellor on addmission to hospital to get put back on pain relief. Only this evening I was with my G.P. advisisng of being unable to get in touch with my consultant for 3 weeks. His assistant is not available for another week. – welcome to Ireland – in the dark ages!!!

      I have been on Epilim tablets 500mg x2 daily for the past six years. I am a passionate person and have been through much emotional trauma over the past decade. I lost a brother in law to suicide. Two attempted suicides by his mother.

      While I tried to do what I could to suppor the family, I know my emotional world was and to a lesser extent is up side down.

      Most recently I had a defibilator inserted after palpitations and a weekness led to investigations to diagnose cardiomyopathy (thickning of the outer wall of the heart) in my case the thickening is only on one side – even more strange.

      All of the above has brought great strain on our marriage. To the point of breaking on numerous occassions. We were blessed with a daughter 3 years ago - which keeps us going!!! My wife Joanie, graduated as a nurse recently which gives further hope. While I am not working for over a year, I am continuing in training (train the trainer) after previously completing a career transfomational course earlier this year – which was excellent.

      Roll on 2013 – listen to your body – It is the wisest teacher on this planet!! sometimes not easily to translate the language though. take care

      November 13, 2012 at 18:08 | Report abuse |
  12. Ben

    Partly shows why cocaine and heroin are so popular. Cures what ails ya – minor side affects though.

    January 14, 2011 at 18:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Charmaine

    Meditation is a wonderful way to combat stress because it can induce the relaxation response in the body which studies have shown to also boost the immune system. I have found meditation can be extremely effective in reducing not only stress but the emotional pain that comes with it. I have experience acute stress myself and personally, I enjoy meditating upon nature and when I can't get outdoors to meditate, I like watching scenic relaxation videos such as the ones by Serenity Moments which you can view at http://www.serenitymoments.com they are quite beautiful. Look for beauty around you and meditate it really can help heal the mind, body and spirit.

    January 14, 2011 at 19:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Gary

      Charmaine you are sooo correct.

      January 14, 2011 at 23:46 | Report abuse |
  14. Gary

    Getting over I.B.S. and fibromyalgia took some time. Mind over matter. Of course the brain controls the entire function of our body. Meditation and months of writing out my emotions finally paid off. Emotional pain stress and anxiety causes ulcers,digestive problems,insomnia,fibromyalgia and a host of other psycosomatic symptoms

    January 14, 2011 at 23:45 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.