One of my vivid childhood memories involves a time when I “rescued” a baby bird. I was about six years old and I was always curious about animals and nature. I lived in a small rural town so there was no shortage of outdoor exploration opportunities. One day I found a baby bird. I’m not sure if I found the bird in the nest and believed its mother abandoned it or if I found it on the ground (a very important detail actually), but nevertheless, I decided I should take the baby and care for it on my own. I put it in a comfy box filled with cotton and went looking for worms to feed it. Within a day I realized this was a tough job. The worms didn’t seem to be enough and I couldn’t keep up with the constant attention it needed. Every time I walked into my room it would wake up and crane its neck for food, attention; warmth; its mother— I didn’t know what or how to care for it. Unfortunately it died a short time later.
I remember how guilty and sad I felt over the death of the baby bird. What was particularly disconcerting was that I also had this intense painful aching, cramping, hollow feeling in my tummy at the same time that I was filled with all of these terrible emotions. I knew that I hadn’t injured myself and that I wasn’t sick, but the pain was undeniably present. I didn’t tell my parents about the pain. I realized that the bird’s death and the pain were connected and I hoped it would go away. My little sister and I buried the bird and sang “Amazing Grace,” which we thought was the appropriate send off to heaven. Over the course of the day, I accepted that I was responsible for the bird’s death and vowed to never interfere like that again. Eventually, the pain went away with the terrible feelings.
Whether you’re a child or an adult, unresolved emotions and feelings can cause tremendous chronic physical pain. The brain is a powerful instrument that can suppress these emotions into the subconscious or even the unconscious, but it doesn’t delete them. There may be another event or memory trigger that causes them to resurface, and if they don’t resurface as emotions, they can resurface as physical pain. It’s the body’s way of letting you know something needs to be addressed; something is wrong that needs to heal. Most psychiatrists and psychologists believe that in order to resolve or move past traumatic events that cause negative emotions, one must confront those feelings and find a solution that allows for the relief of guilt, sorrow, anger and embarrassment. Frequently that involves defining the causative event and then finding a way to forgive yourself or another for what may have taken place.
People often self-medicate emotional pain with drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol can work as analgesics and distract us from acknowledging those negative emotions and the events or issues that cause them. Even the Opioid Crisis is partially the result of physicians’ attempts to control pain that is often more related to major anxiety, depression, and stress than physical injury or pathology. Opioids can alleviate emotional pain, but usually the dose exceeds what is needed to reduce purely physical pain and the relief is usually short lived. The best treatment for emotional pain is found with a certified therapist who is trained to identify the psychological and stress factors that are causing the pain and then to help you find a way to accept and resolve. Do not confuse this with the sentiment “it’s all in your head” or “your pain isn’t real.” Neither is further from the truth. Emotional pain feels like physical pain, but the appropriate treatment is mindful or spiritual medicine, not oral medicine.