Emotional Pain and the Immune System

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Emotional Pain and the Immune System

The brain processes physical pain and heartache in similar ways

By Working Nurse
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Anyone who’s ever been single on Valentine’s Day knows that loneliness hurts, but few of us think of this emotional pain as a medical concern. Researchers at UCLA believe that’s a mistake — and argue that loneliness can have a big impact on physical health.

Heartache = Real Ache

Is heartache quantifiably different than physical pain? Not necessarily, say UCLA’s Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry Steven W. Cole, Ph.D., and social psychology Professor Naomi Eisenberger, Ph.D.

Cole and Eisenberger believe there’s now strong evidence of a “physical-social pain overlap,” meaning that emotional pain involves some of the same neural pathways as the pain of a physical injury.

Eisenberger, who heads UCLA’s Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, points to a remarkable study in the June 2010 issue of Psychological Science. The authors of that study found that giving patients acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) actually reduced emotional stress compared to placebo. The effect was visible on MRI scans as well as in participants’ self-reports. “We think this is why people talk about rejection as literally hurting,” Eisenberger recently told writer Vivienne de Turenne, “because the brain processes emotional and physical pain in similar ways.”

A Need for Connection

While some emotional pain is transitory, loneliness can be a chronic condition. Cole says that loneliness actually suppresses the immune system and promotes inflammation, which leaves patients more susceptible to other diseases and increases mortality rates. This doesn’t mean that if you’re single, you have to sign up for Tinder to stay healthy.

Current research suggests that any activity that provides positive social contact can be beneficial, particularly for older adults. If you’d like to learn more about the controversial pain overlap theory, check out the Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory website, www.sanlab.psych.ucla.edu.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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