Emotional pain typically drives the quest for psychotherapy.  Pain, after all, is nature’s signal that an organism’s welfare, and survival, are threatened.  Hence, taking action to identify the cause of the pain and to eliminate it are adaptive.  Any psychotherapist, and anyone who has undertaken psychotherapy, will tell you that it is not always easy to identify the cause of the pain and treat it — unlike how we diagnose and treat bacterial infections with antibiotics.  We have no clinically-available biological markers for emotional distress: no blood tests, brain scans, or urine assays.  The pain is no less real than that experienced elsewhere in the body, but explaining it is orders of magnitude trickier and requires more indirect methods of assessment.

Just try finding a word to describe the experience of an emotional ache.  The exercise renders most of us speechless for minutes.  Patient: “It feels bad.”  Therapist: “Yes, but which bad feeling is it?”  Patient: “I don’t know.”  And so the patient and therapist begin the excavation of the layers of his/her emotions and emotional learning history, down the layers of time as far as we can go — working to identify the feeling, its duration, its triggers in real time, and its roots in emotional history.

New research suggests that those layers of emotional learning may go deeper than we might expect.  In a recent study, psychological scientists demonstrated that 1-year-old infants seem to be capable of registering the emotions resulting from social interactions.  After performing a puppet show for the infants, researchers found that the infants could discern when one puppet was mistreated by another.  They could even discern when the mistreatment was accidental or deliberate.  In essence, the infants “…had strong feelings…” about the way the puppets should have treated each other.

Psychotherapists often speculate that some emotional reactions were learned, or emotional raw spots created, so early in life that they are not recorded as explicit memories, that is, memories that are “tagged” with information such as time and place of acquisition.  Rather, some emotional reactions seem to be recorded as implicit memories, typically experienced as something one just “knows” or experiences as “this is just me” without the ability to explain how it came to be.  The observations from this new study offer some tantalizing hints about the information infants can process and understand in their social – emotional worlds and could partially explain the challenge of putting feelings into words.  Some feelings could have been experienced before language development.  The study’s findings may also shine some light on the darkness of our understanding of how the emotional atmosphere of a family leaves its mark.

A recent study using mice to mimic stress and depression in adolescents suggests that the teenage years are a particularly vulnerable time for the brain.  Working with mice who carried an introduced human gene mutation for depression, the researchers exposed some of the adolescent mice to social stress (isolation for three weeks) and kept a control group of mice stress-free.  There were two important findings.  First, the gene mutation for depression had no effect on mouse behavior except among the stressed mice.  Second, they found that the behavior change may be mediated by increases in cortisol (a stress hormone) and decreases in dopamine (a neurotransmitter in the brain).  Morever, after they returned the stressed mice to their preferred social environment, the behavioral abnormalities remained.  This study, and others like it, suggest that once activated during adolescence, the neuro-biological pathway active in depression does not turn off, even after the stressor has passed.

The take-home message?  We have another reason to increase our efforts at promoting healthy family environments for our children, and another reason that insurance companies should stop refusing to pay for marriage counseling.  A loving and secure attachment between married partners is the foundation for well-adjusted and resilient children.  …and possibly a buffer against a life suffering with depression.

Check out a more detailed summary of the study: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/publications/psychiatry_newsletter/hopkins_brainwise_spring_2013/stress_can_it_bring_more_than_teen_angst

or the study itself: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6117/335.long

 

Check out this article entitled, “Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain” by Kross et al.  For non-geeks, here’s my summary:  Researchers studied the brains of 40 adults (21 women, 19 men) who had been rejected by a romantic partner within the previous six months.  Using functional MRI imaging, they compared the location of brain activity that occurred while the research participants experienced physical pain (heat applied to the forearm just below their pain tolerance) and while they experienced emotional pain (seeing a picture of the rejecting partner and remembering how it felt to be rejected).  The same brain regions were activated with both types of pain, and the authors concluded that “…intense social rejection may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain” (p. 4).  In essence, “hurting” after an unwanted breakup is not simply a metaphor.

Rejection and Pain  Link to article: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/03/22/1102693108.full.pdf

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