Willow Grove Counselling, Inc. - Specializing in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)

A Broken Heart is a Meaningful Metaphor… pain is pain, no matter how it is delivered. HOW TO DEAL WITH THE PAIN!

How many times have you heard the expression ‘sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you’? Perhaps these are the words of your parents or teachers. Maybe you have even said these words in an effort to assist a child or a friend. As well-meaning as everyone may be, the fact is that we do not respond with the same sense of urgency to the issues of name-calling or teasing – otherwise known as verbal abuse – as they would if someone shared an incident of physical abuse.

According to Science, a professional publication, names do hurt. Apparently, areas of the brain that are activated when physical pain is inflicted are also activated with a person’s feelings are hurt. On a brain scan, according to studies, the sense of rejection that is experienced when someone is excluded in a game is observed in the same area of the brain in which physical pain is experienced. The pain of hurt feelings is as real as the pain of physical injury. Sticks and stones may break bones but words meant to hurt are also recorded in the same pain centres. Clearly we need to pay attention to scars associated with feelings of rejection, verbal insults, or abuse.

Brain scans also indicate that the experience of rejection can activate an area of the brain associated with language and emotional regulation. In fact, with more activity occurring in the language and emotional regulation area, the less pain that was reported. It was suggested that ‘verbalizing distress may partly shut down the areas of the brain that register distress.’ This means that expressing the pain through the use of language, e.g. journals, poems, and talking, appears to reduce the effects of the painful event.

It has also been suggested that grief and loss may share the same neural pathways as physical pain. The normal grief and loss reaction is to move closer to other people for support. This closer connection eliminates some of the pain. Social connections are survival instincts that counteract the unhealthy actions that exclude us from others. It is as if the mind has the knowledge in those moments of extreme pain associated with loss and grief to heal through social support from others.

This research article concludes by saying, “Throughout history, poets have written about the pain of a broken heart which is now supported by neurophysiological findings.” And can we assume from this that the opposite could be true - that socially supportive and loving feelings can reduce the sting of insult?

In the event of a physical assault, we are compelled to action; however, we need to also feel the same sense of indignation and action at an emotional insult. Verbal abuse hurts and it can cause its own kind of ‘breaks’ and wounds. A broken heart is a meaningful metaphor! The strong and silent approach, or ‘just get over it’ does not seem to be very helpful – sharing the pain through writing in a journal, or seeking help through talking with someone who will allow the full expression of the pain is adequate first aid. Expression, not silence, heals.


Originally published in the 'Tri-Cities News' as a voluntary contribution to the community from Arthur (Art) Rathgeber.

Willow Grove Counselling, Inc. - specializing in CBT.
Art Rathgeber, EdD., R.Psych, Certified Cognitive Therapist and Alexandra Rathgeber, M.Ed., RCC provide Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Depression/Anxiety.
With an office in Port Coquitlam - easy access from Coquitlam, Port Moody, Maple Ridge, Burnaby, New Westminster, Pitt Meadows, and Langley.