How Negative Emotions Turn Into Pain

Different feelings can lead to different strains on our body

How Negative Emotions Turn Into Pain
Sitting on our bottoms—at work, at school, at home, in a car, in a chair, on a sofa, in front of the television—has recently been linked to all kinds of health problems. (Lisa-S/Shutterstock)

You’ve heard the expressions “pain in the neck” or “pain in the butt” and assumed that they’re just figures of speech to describe a person or a situation that’s unpleasant. However, I know firsthand that stress, trauma, and emotional issues can morph into a pain in your neck, in your butt, and many other places in your body.

Here’s how it happens: When you get frustrated or overwhelmed, your muscles tense up, and after a while, the layers of those tight muscles begin to “stick” to the layers of muscle above and below them. Those adhesions are called knots, which you can feel as a lump in your muscle below the surface of the skin. They can be painful, tight, and often tough to get rid of.

When you relax, knots may also relax or resolve completely. After a massage or when you’ve been away on vacation, you may notice that the knots are gone. Sadly, chances are good that your knots will return once you’re back at the daily grind—an indication that when you relax, your muscles do, too.

If you have a health condition or chronic pain, your emotions and how you think about that pain can either alleviate or aggravate your symptoms. It’s long been known by researchers that holding on to negative emotions, worrying about your symptoms, and anxiety can make your pain worse. That’s because your body and mind are interconnected and work together. So your thoughts, attitudes, and fears affect the way your body processes pain.

The fear of having pain can also result in you avoiding the physical and social activities that you once enjoyed. Over time, this can feed into a negative spiral of loss of strength and function and a loss of social relationships—all factors that further contribute to your pain.

Can you do anything about the pain that’s caused by negative emotions?  The answer is yes, but there are a couple of steps involved. First, think about how you’re actually feeling. It’s so easy to blame everything on stress, but it’s far more helpful to pinpoint exactly what’s going on with your emotions.

For example, being "stressed" could mean that you’re dealing with trauma, feeling anxious about an upcoming problem or event, or have a sense of being overwhelmed and out of control by the circumstances in your life. When you move closer to exactly what you’re feeling, it also brings you closer to what’s causing your pain.

It’s also important to understand where you’re feeling pain. That’s because certain emotions tend to be expressed by different muscle groups. Similar to using muscles in your face when you’re happy and smile, you tend to feel tense in your upper back and neck when you’re frustrated and overwhelmed and experience tightness in your chest when you’re anxious.

Your rib muscles are also part of the emotion/pain equation. When you’re happy, inspired, and upbeat, the muscles around your ribs open up your chest and making it easier for you to breathe more fully.

However, when you’re depressed, a different set of rib muscles contract, pulling your chest inward and making it harder to breathe deeply.

The obvious solution is to do something about the situation and emotions that are causing your pain. Unfortunately, often that isn't possible or realistic. Sometimes, you have no choice but to coexist with an obnoxious boss, deal with a troubled child, or care for an aging parent.  However, research has proven that as far as your feelings are concerned, you can “act as if” rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of your life.

"Acting as if" means you can:

Smile. By engaging the muscles involved in smiling, you actually activate neurotransmitters in your brain that improve your mood.

Cultivate your sense of humor and look for reasons to laugh. Laughing also activates those feel-good brain chemicals.

Open up your chest and take a few deep breaths, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Deep breathing is often one of the first steps toward meditating because it helps you relax quickly.

Meditate. It helps calm your brain and release pain-relieving neurotransmitters.

Pay attention to your posture, which does a world of good for opening up your chest and rib cage, pulling up your back muscles, and allowing you to breathe more fully.

When you’re struggling with negative emotions, try to choose a thought that's just one step more positive than the one you're having at the moment.

Engage in good self-care, especially when you’re anxious, frustrated, or overwhelmed.  A good diet, adequate sleep, and moving your body can help prevent negative emotions from turning into pain.

The reality is that everyone struggles with loss, difficult circumstances, and negative emotions. However, with some self-awareness and a little effort, those negative emotions don’t have to mutate into pain.

Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on