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When Emotional Pain Manifests into Physical Pain


My Dad died two weeks ago today.

That sounds pretty blunt, doesn’t it?

My dad died. My dad died. My dad died.

I kind of have to keep saying it like that to make it real.

During his illness and the days immediately following his death, I expected and have handled most of the five stages of loss and grief (except for anger; I’m not dealing all that well with anger); however, what I didn’t expect was how caring for Dad and then dealing with his death would affect me physically.

I mean, sure, I expected the sleeplessness and fatigue during the last few weeks of his life (caring for someone ’round the clock while juggling work is exhausting, to say the least), but some of the other physical symptoms — especially the ones that came after his death — took me by surprise.

Some of the physical symptoms I’ve experienced include:

  • Body and joint aches, pains, and stiffness.
  • Chest pains and tightness.
  • Difficulty breathing or getting enough oxygen.
  • Headaches and dizziness.
  • Sleeplessness and fatigue.
  • Appetite changes, digestive issues, and belly aches.
  • Dexterity problems.
  • Problems walking straight lines, lifting my feet, and even avoiding obstacles.

When in a state of grief, we experience emotions, which are tied to hormones or neurotransmitters, which are further tied to the nervous system. This is why grief is not only an emotional experience, but a physical experience as well.
The body is never separate from our experience of events, emotions, traumas, or interactions. We may not be aware of how the body is cueing in on what is happening, but it is. It is in this way that the ‘body keeps score’ of everything we experience from birth through the experience of death.
— Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, Understanding Loss and Grief: A Guide Through Life-Changing Events

That’s a good, easy-to-understand scientific way of putting it.

The Positive Side of Pain: Redefining Your Experience

I talked to some of my fellow Psych Central bloggers about these experiences, and many of them agree they’ve experienced similar physical reactions.

The primary physical reaction for me was fatigue. I felt tired most of the time and napped for hours each day. I’m sure part of this was also just to escape my experience of the pain of grief, but the toll the pain took on my body also wore it down. — Bobbi Emel of Bounce Back — Develop Your Resiliency

Panic About Anxiety‘s Summer Beretsky took things a step further and mused that our phsycial reactions are directly related to how we experience the emotional ones:

It really struck me one day when I realized that the physiological reactions to anxiety are identical to the physiological reactions of excitement. Anxiety feels negative, but excitement feels positive, although the adrenaline runs freely for both emotions and the heart speeds up in response. The only difference between anxiety and excitement, then, is how the experience is valenced in our minds.

Makes sense.

It seems — at least for some of us — these physical symptoms are inevitable. I’ve learned two truths through this ordeal:

  1. Seek help when it gets to be too much. (Chest pains are nothing to play around with, y’all.)
  2. Be kind to yourself. Both your mind and your body are coping. Don’t expect too much from them too soon; let them do their thing.

Elisha Goldstein of Mindfulness & Psychotherapy provides us with his poignant adaptation of Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion:

This is a moment or time of sadness.
In life there are moments or times of sadness.
May I be kind to myself during this time.

What kinds of physical symptoms have YOU experienced during emotional times. Do you have any suggestions to help others cope with them?

When Emotional Pain Manifests into Physical Pain

Alicia Sparks

Alicia Sparks is a freelance writer and editor and the creator of, where she blogs to help new freelance writers get their quills in the pot, so to speak. Among animal rights, music, and physical wellness, her passions include mental health and advocacy. Here at Psych Central she works as Syndication Editor as well as authors Your Body, Your Mind, Unleash Your Creativity, and World of Psychology's weekly "Psychology Around the Net."

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APA Reference
Sparks, A. (2014). When Emotional Pain Manifests into Physical Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Feb 2014
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