• Luli Faber

Scientific research provides evidence that emotions create physical ailments

Dr John Sarno is a doctor in the US who has cured thousands of patients with chronic pain by helping the patients to recognise and address the emotional cause of their pain. He describes this in his books "Healing Back Pain", "The Divided Mind" and "The Mind-Body Prescription". Dr Sarno attributes most chronic pain to be caused by suppression of rage brought about by life events, with the causes of the rage originating in our childhoods.

This is a trailer for an upcoming documentary about Dr Sarno, entitled "All The Rage".

In the documentary they outline some of the scientific research that has been published showing this strong causal link between emotions and pain, and it prompted me to outline some of the findings here.

The above paper, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 1998, describes how people who have traumatic childhoods are significantly more likely to suffer from physical and emotional ailments later on in life.

This is the abstract of the paper:


The relationship of health risk behavior and disease in adulthood to the breadth of exposure to childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, and household dysfunction during childhood has not previously been described.


A questionnaire about adverse childhood experiences was mailed to 13,494 adults who had completed a standardized medical evaluation at a large HMO; 9,508 (70.5%) responded. Seven categories of adverse childhood experiences were studied: psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; violence against mother; or living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or ever imprisoned. The number of categories of these adverse childhood experiences was then compared to measures of adult risk behavior, health status, and disease. Logistic regression was used to adjust for effects of demographic factors on the association between the cumulative number of categories of childhood exposures (range: 0-7) and risk factors for the leading causes of death in adult life.


More than half of respondents reported at least one, and one-fourth reported > or = 2 categories of childhood exposures. We found a graded relationship between the number of categories of childhood exposure and each of the adult health risk behaviors and diseases that were studied (P < .001). Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt; a 2- to 4-fold increase in smoking, poor self-rated health, > or = 50 sexual intercourse partners, and sexually transmitted disease; and 1.4- to 1.6-fold increase in physical inactivity and severe obesity. The number of categories of adverse childhood exposures showed a graded relationship to the presence of adult diseases including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. The seven categories of adverse childhood experiences were strongly interrelated and persons with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life.


We found a strong graded relationship between the breadth of exposure to abuse or household dysfunction during childhood and multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults.

This paper, published in the Journal of General International Medicine in 2010, is a controlled scientific study examining the approach that Dr Sarno used for many of his patients - simply journalling about everyday emotions that arise (termed emotional disclosure). This approach was trialled in patients suffering from fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that affects many regions of the body.

In journalling the patients move out of a state of denial of the emotions that are arising in their life, and in doing so this alleviates the pain, since it is the denial of emotions that create physical pain.

This is the abstract of the paper:


Affect and how it is regulated plays a role in pain perception, maintenance of pain, and its resolution. This randomized, controlled trial evaluated an innovative affective self-awareness (ASA) intervention, which was designed to reduce pain and improve functioning in individuals with fibromyalgia.


Forty-five women with fibromyalgia were randomized to a manualized ASA intervention (n = 24) or wait-list control (n = 21). The intervention began with a one-time physician consultation, followed by 3 weekly, 2-h group sessions based upon a mind-body model of pain. Sessions focused on structured written emotional disclosure and emotional awareness exercises. Outcomes in both conditions were measured by a blinded assessor at baseline, post-intervention, and 6-month follow-up.


The primary outcome was pain severity (Brief Pain Inventory); secondary outcomes included tender-point threshold and physical function (SF-36 Physical Component Summary). Intent-to-treat analyses compared groups on outcomes using analysis of covariance and on the proportion of patients achieving ≥30% and ≥50% pain reduction at 6 months.


Adjusting for baseline scores, the intervention group had significantly lower pain severity (p < 0.001), higher self-reported physical function (p < 0.001), and higher tender-point threshold (p = 0.02) at 6 months compared to the control group. From baseline to 6 months, 45.8% of the ASA intervention group had ≥30% reduction in pain severity, compared to none of the controls (p < 0.001).


The affective self-awareness intervention improved pain, tenderness, and self-reported physical function for at least 6 months in women with fibromyalgia compared to wait-list control. This study suggests the value of interventions targeting emotional processes in fibromyalgia, although further studies should evaluate the efficacy of this intervention relative to active controls.

This paper, published in the prestigious journal, Brain, in 2013, describes how the brain circuits associated with back pain experiences change in people with acute versus chronic pain.

Initially the areas of the brain that are activated during acute pain are regions associated with pain perception (nociception), but over longer periods of time, with chronic pain, the brain regions activated during a pain experience become the emotional centres of the brain.

This demonstrates the very close linkage between our emotional experiences and our physical pain.

This is the abstract of the paper:

Chronic pain conditions are associated with abnormalities in brain structure and function. Moreover, some studies indicate that brain activity related to the subjective perception of chronic pain may be distinct from activity for acute pain. However, the latter are based on observations from cross-sectional studies. How brain activity reorganizes with transition from acute to chronic pain has remained unexplored.

Here we study this transition by examining brain activity for rating fluctuations of back pain magnitude. First we compared back pain-related brain activity between subjects who have had the condition for ∼2 months with no prior history of back pain for 1 year (early, acute/subacute back pain group, n = 94), to subjects who have lived with back pain for >10 years (chronic back pain group, n = 59).

In a subset of subacute back pain patients, we followed brain activity for back pain longitudinally over a 1-year period, and compared brain activity between those who recover (recovered acute/sub-acute back pain group, n = 19) and those in which the back pain persists (persistent acute/sub-acute back pain group, n = 20; based on a 20% decrease in intensity of back pain in 1 year).

We report results in relation to meta-analytic probabilistic maps related to the terms pain, emotion, and reward (each map is based on >200 brain imaging studies, derived from neurosynth.org).

We observed that brain activity for back pain in the early, acute/subacute back pain group is limited to regions involved in acute pain, whereas in the chronic back pain group, activity is confined to emotion-related circuitry. Reward circuitry was equally represented in both groups.

In the recovered acute/subacute back pain group, brain activity diminished in time, whereas in the persistent acute/subacute back pain group, activity diminished in acute pain regions, increased in emotion-related circuitry, and remained unchanged in reward circuitry.

The results demonstrate that brain representation for a constant percept, back pain, can undergo large-scale shifts in brain activity with the transition to chronic pain. These observations challenge long-standing theoretical concepts regarding brain and mind relationships, as well as provide important novel insights regarding definitions and mechanisms of chronic pain.

This paper, published in Psychological Science this year, uses multiple approaches to show that financial stress and the feeling of being out of control actually creates physical pain.

This is the abstract of the paper:

The past decade has seen a rise in both economic insecurity and frequency of physical pain. The current research reveals a causal connection between these two growing and consequential social trends.

In five studies, we found that economic insecurity produced physical pain and reduced pain tolerance. In a sixth study, with data from 33,720 geographically diverse households across the United States, economic insecurity predicted consumption of over-the-counter painkillers.

The link between economic insecurity and physical pain emerged when people experienced the insecurity personally (unemployment), when they were in an insecure context (they were informed that their state had a relatively high level of unemployment), and when they contemplated past and future economic insecurity.

Using both experimental-causal-chain and measurement-of-mediation approaches, we also established that the psychological experience of lacking control helped generate the causal link from economic insecurity to physical pain.

Meta-analyses including all of our studies testing the link from economic insecurity to physical pain revealed that this link is reliable.

Overall, the findings show that it physically hurts to be economically insecure.

#childhoodtrauma #childabuse #depression #addiction #cancer #heartdisease #liverdisease #lungdisease #fibromyalgia #chronicpain #poverty