Connection between depression and physical pain?

Originally Published: November 21, 2008
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Dear Alice,

When I hear someone make a negative comment about me it sometimes sticks and for some reason my chest will begin to hurt. A friend of mine said it was emotional shock. For a while the feeling went away, but then it got worse. Now the pain will range from my heart to my left arm, depending on how badly (depressed) I feel. In general, I want to know if I should be concerned or if it's just as my friend says: "emotional shock," that's just gotten worse.

Please help,

Dear "Solace,"

Hearing someone making negative remarks about you is certainly an emotional blow, and you are wise to pay attention to the bodily manifestations of having your feelings hurt. The physical pain you're experiencing as a result of these comments points to a mind-body connection between emotional stress and physical responses.

Feeling depressed and experiencing physical pain often go hand-in-hand. Depression increases your body's response to pain, and on the flipside, being in pain can lead to depressive or upsetting thoughts and feelings. These two bedfellows can work together to create a vicious cycle. Your environment and/or family genetics may also play a role in how pain and depression affect you. As you continue to pay attention to the physical effects of being emotionally rocked, keep in mind that treatment — including psychotherapy and/or taking antidepressants — may subdue these "double-header" depression and pain experiences.

Physical pain radiating from the chest area (or the heart) into other areas of your body may also be a sign of more severe health problems. Angina — a type of chest pain associated with not enough blood reaching the heart — is one such ailment that can be specifically triggered by emotional stress, which causes blood pressure and adrenaline go up. Pain in the chest and arm are also potential symptoms of somatization disorder, a physical condition that causes pain in the body as a result of psychological problems. Somatization disorder can cause quite a lot of pain in the long run, and usually has little or no underlying physical causes, but rather is caused by mental unrest or high levels of emotional stress. People who have heart attacks also describe pain in the chest and left arm as early signs of the attack. Myocardial infarctions (heart attacks), perhaps the biggest reason to take your pain seriously, can have quiet beginnings, with pain in the chest and left arm in particular.

All of the ailments above have one thing in common: they can be triggered by emotional stress. Hearing people say negative things about you is an understandable stressor. What types of negative comments are affecting you? Do you have the pain when you receive constructive criticism from a professor or your boss? When you perceive people are gossiping about you? When someone is being purposefully mean? Talking with a counselor or therapist about ways to manage your response to negative comments or ways to boost self-confidence may help deflect some of the impact you are experiencing physically. Counseling and Psychological Services are available to Columbia students by calling x4-2878, where you can set up an appointment to meet with a counselor.

Primary care providers can also address your physical pain and help in the treatment of depression. Either approach — seeing a counselor or a primary care provider — is a step in the right direction. Columbia students can make an appointment with a primary care provider through Open Communicator or by calling x4-2284.

You shouldn't have to physically suffer for anything you hear people say about you. However you choose to proceed, fortifying yourself with positive thinking and self-affirming thoughts may help deflect any negativity you encounter.


March 15, 2012

I've never heard of someone having this experience also. Ever since I was a small child and I would experience a great sadness, usually due to criticism as well, I would get a shooting pain down my...
I've never heard of someone having this experience also. Ever since I was a small child and I would experience a great sadness, usually due to criticism as well, I would get a shooting pain down my left arm. I asked a few doctors and shrinks about it over the years but received no explanation. I began thinking of it as heart literally "breaking." I'm not glad that you suffer from this also, but I am glad I've finally read of someone else having the same problem. Up til now, I didn't know if I was just crazy or what