Is Pain Real or Is It All In Your Head? Neuroscience Explains

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Pain feels like a fast stab wound to the heart. But then healing feels like the wind against your face when you are spreading your wings and flying through the air. We may not have wings growing out of our backs, but healing is the closest thing that will give us that wind against our faces.
~C. Joybell

Do you remember growing up, going to the doctor’s office to get a vaccine shot —only to be crippled by the thought of having a sharp needle stuck in you? But for some strange reason, when your doctor took your attention off of the shot and onto whatever they were saying; the pain of the needle became unnoticeable.

Now did the pain magically go away with your doctor’s kind words or is it that pain goes beyond just the physical sensation attached to it?

Neuroscience is illustrating for the world, that perhaps pain is more bio-psychological than we had previously thought. In fact, pain is more in your head than you ever realized.

The Different Types of Pain Explained

We first need to understand that there are different types of pain and how we perceive them is varied as well. For example, there is a difference between tissue-damage pain and the pain associated with a broken heart.

Both feel just as intense as the other, the major difference is the origin of the pain and how your neurons interpret the pain associated with the stimulus.

The research

Edwin S. Shneidman Ph.D., founder of the American Association of Suicidology, explains that the majority of pain, even physical pain has its roots in the body’s need for help. Dr. Shneidman goes on to say that the sensation of pain is a combination of physiological processes and psychological needs.

Needs such as the need for love, freedom, achievement or even the need to avoid embarrassment, shame, and harm.

Another element that contributes to how you feel pain and the reason we all experience it slightly differently, is which needs take priority within our personal lives. Harvard University Psychologist Henry Murray enlightened the psychological community by explaining that there are no concrete forms expressing the caliber of someone’s pain.

The only legitimate method is by gauging someone’s reactions to pain and what they have to say about what they are feeling. Henry Murray goes on to say that this phenomenon occurs because each one of us rates our psychological needs differently.

Meaning, what is the most important need for me (emotional need) may not be the most important need for you (financial need), thus the reason for differing levels of pain.

Another factor that plays into how you perceive pain is your childhood and the experiences of pain as a child. Think about it, if you had never experienced pain before, you would be devastated the first time you broke a bone because you wouldnt have the gained wisdom on how to deal with said pain.

The same happens if a child is exposed to pain consistently and then reinforced by a negative emotion. This leads to two different types of pain sensitizations.

Peripheral Sensitization

This type of pain sensitivity has to deal with the inflammation or damage to your bodily tissue. For example, when you get a cut on your finger, you are experiencing peripheral sensitization.

During this process, there is a change in the transduction proteins, which are the carriers of messages that affect the nociceptors, or the receptors of your bodys sensory neurons. When you burn your finger, the stimulus is transformed into electrical signals which are then carried throughout your nervous system and up to your brain via these proteins.

Central Sensitization

During this type of pain something different happens in people: instead of originating from bodily harm, this pain can manifest itself without tissue damage.

What happens is that the neurons in your central nervous system become excited more easily resulting in feeling pain for much longer periods of time and much more easily. The pain that would normally subside after the initial stimulus still lingers around, eventually leading to chronic pain.

The Mind-Body Connection To Pain

Many doctors believe that disorders such as Fibromyalgia; where the patient has nothing physiologically wrong with them, can be tied back to central sensitization.

I spoke with the former President of the Austin Pain Society, Dr. Brannon Frank, in order to better understand the mind and pain connection. After several discussions about single-case patients, Dr. Frank explained to me that the majority of his patients that come complaining of chronic stress usually begins with a life story.

Whereas athletes and other patients who have recently suffered tissue damage can immediately pinpoint the exact origin of pain and typically explain the situation behind the accident. Fibromyalgia patients and others suffering from chronic pain paint a picture of great emotional distress.

Dr. Frank goes on to tell me that more often than not, the patients suffering from severe chronic pain, tell the story of their lives where they recently divorced, lost a loved one, or are undergoing severe depression.

This is a real-life example of how pain is not just in the body but in the mind of the beholder. So the next time you find yourself battling chronic pain or a bad back before you run to your physical therapist — take a long and hard look at your life.

Are you suffering from the loss of something valuable in your life or are you genuinely physically hurt? The answer won’t be easy or completely obvious, but I can tell you this much, how you react to the pain makes all the difference. It truly may be all in your head.

To Learn More About Pain (References)

  1. US National Library of Medicine:
  2. US National Library of Medicine:
  3. Karen Byfield | Mental Health Advocate (original publication)

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About the Author:

As an American Author and Research Psychologist, the two aspects in life I value most are: humanity and self-improvement. I make it my goal and life's work to illuminate the secrets of the mind and our potential to every thirsty man and woman. For when given water to grow, we humans prosper. Aside from my love of moving the human spirit -- I also research and rejoice in the fields of neuroscience, historical arts, and quantum mechanics.


  1. Cynthia Sue Timko July 28, 2014 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    Anyone, medical or psychilogical professional on any level, and all patient suffering from chronic pain, should read a boo called ‘The Pain Chronicles’, by Melanie Thernstrom. It may be in your head, alright, but never let anyone even hint that it is not very real, very debilitating and very serious. It may be in your head alright, but due to something physically, mentally wrong with what is in your head as in my case. I have struggled with it for about 30 years. NEVER assume that chronic pain is purely or even mostly psychological, though it is true that depression and pain use similar, if not the same, nerve paths. It is a terrible unending loop: the worse one gets the worse the other gets, and the worse the first gets, and so on, untill omeone actually believes that you really do have genuine pain from a physical cause and is able to treat it adequately. Anti-depression therapy may be needed as well if it has gone on long enough. Chronic pain is depressing, very depressing.

    • Tina April 28, 2018 at 9:58 pm - Reply

      Oh cynthia how i can relate to what you must be going through, continouse suffering u have endured all these years. In my case it has only been three years but feels as though i have had it for a lot longer Such a debilitating, depressing condition to the point u feel isolated in so many ways, I have tried every thing i knjow to understand the condition in hopes i may recover but harderer i try worse it seems to gets, The best we can hope for is that soneobe will come up with an answer to this herendouse condition, All the vert best to you T

  2. Faith L August 4, 2014 at 7:22 pm - Reply

    I am curious what the author and reseachers would think of the connection of self-harm and pain. The idea of replacing emotional pain for physcal pain and the psychology that involes. Why would the mind rather that in some people?

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