Emotional Abuse is Real Pain

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Every child in our culture learns the refrain “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  This statement could not be more false from a psychological point of view and we will make the case that not only is the emotional pain caused from verbal abuse real, but that it is more damaging and lasting than physical pain.

Scans using fMRI technologies provide compelling evidence that the brain interprets physical pain and emotional pain in the same way because the same area of the brain lights up. As Matthew Lieberman aptly points out in his book ‘Social’, humans intuitively know this and the expressions we use to talk about emotional trauma prove it, expressions like “He broke my heart” or “You really hurt me when you said that.”

I want to take it one step further though, showing that the emotional component is usually what propels any type of pain from tolerable to intolerable by comparing the experience of physical pain caused by an accident where no one is to blame with the experience of physical pain caused by domestic abuse. Obviously both hurt. But if you talk to victims of domestic violence they will say that the physical pain is manageable and they know it will eventually go away. It is what that pain signifies, the sense of isolation it creates, the unfairness of the situation, that cuts them to the soul and really hurts.

If you stub your toe or have symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome or are dealing with headaches or back pain, for example, the experience is obviously unpleasant but unless it is chronic and of such high intensity that you consider it unbearable, it doesn’t really affect your psyche. You can go about your day with your sense of Self intact, considering the pain an annoyance that will hopefully go away soon. But the exact same level of pain connected to an experience of abuse is interpreted much differently and will affect the very core of your being, causing you to question your Self, making you feel vulnerable, exposed, and lonely.

This is why we have to give credence to the damaging effects of emotional abuse, even when it is not attached to physical harm, because the emotional and psychological components are the most important factors to take into account in the first place. As we said at the top the same part of the brain lights up whether the input is physical or not. Emotional abuse hurts, not symbolically but actually. The pain it causes is real and lasting, and those affected by it should not be discounted as weak or as whiners, but as people who are unnecessarily being made to suffer at the hands of a tormentor.