Chronic Depression, Chronic Pain- It’s All the Same, say Experts

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It’s the stuff sad songs say so much, to quote Elton- that  indescribable physical pain brought on by heartbreak, social rejection and depression. Well, scientists today are saying that it’s not just a figment of our imagination; there actually is a link between chronic physical pain, including pain disorders such as fibromyalgia, and chronic depression, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.

Turns out, words hurt just as much as sticks and stones

New research, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, indicates that the same network of our brain which processes emotions such as depression and feelings of insult is also responsible for pain.  Just as a paper cut on our finger triggers a pain response in our nervous system, so do psychological wounds; physical social pain is our body’s way of telling us that something is wrong, and serves as a useful evolutionary survival tool for survival.

Individuals who suffer from chronic depression often experience long-lasting sensitivity to pain, or fibromyalgia.

It’s what separates us, as uniquely social animals, from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Why your body can’t tell the difference between a car accident and a bad breakup

  • Researchers such as University of Toronto psychologist Geoff MacDonald have conducted studies explaining the correlation between hurt feelings and neuropathic pain.
  • The body’s response to feelings such as embarrassment, rejection or offense is very similar to the way one’s body responds to physical injuries such as cuts and bruises.
  • Stood up by an ex-heartthrob, jilted by somebody you thought you could trust? Your body goes right into that same fight or flight stress response which is supposed to be reserved for actual emergencies, like fires or car accidents. Heartache or headache- it all stems from the same part of the brain.
  • Dr. MacDonald’s experiments included subjects who described their feelings resulting from a particular social rejection; initially came a feeling of shock, which they associated with numbness, a temporary feeling of imperviousness to pain; once the shock wore down, the subject then described experiencing hurt feelings which were accompanied by physical pain.
  • In December of 2009, as published in Psychological Science, researchers documented a correlation between the pain-killing effects of acetaminophen and a reduced sensitivity to social rejection.

Physical health is just as important for our survival as mental health.

According to Dr. MacDonald and other scientists, the brain’s equating of neuropathic pain with chronic physical pain is a necessary function of evolution; to continue as a species, we must continue to protect our bodies from harm, while also cementing our social fabric because your nervous system is as dedicated to keeping your body intact as it is to keeping your social life in order.

For more about how vitamin B12 relates to depression and fibromyalgia, read:

Eating your Way out of Depression with B12

Male Depression on the Rise

How to Tell if Chronic Pain is Fibromyalgia: 18 Pressure Points


Los Angeles Times, Psychological Science, the National Academy of Sciences