Talking Pain Away
by David Yarian, Ph.D.
Putting your problems into words can soften the emotional impact of those problems. This notion, which is a psychological observation that may explain some of the usefulness of talking with friends, prayer, journaling, psychotherapy, and talking to "worry dolls", has been around a long time.
As is often the case, scientific "proof" or research-based knowledge lags behind common sense or cultural wisdom. But it?s interesting anyway.
Dr. Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA psychologist, has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of research participants when they experienced situations that caused some physical pain. MRI images can show the scientist what portions of the brain are being activated, moment by moment. It?s as if brain activity is indicated by different portions of the brain "lighting up".
When physical pain is experienced, the anterior cingulate cortex lights up. Under research conditions persons whose right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex was also active reported feeling relatively less distress. This area of the brain is associated with language production and verbalizing thoughts.
Brain activity in the amygdala is associated with emotional distress. Lieberman found that concurrent activity in the language area of the brain was related to lowered feelings of distress. He theorizes that verbalizing an emotion may activate the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex, which then suppresses the areas of the brain that produce emotional pain.
And you thought it just feels good to talk with a friend when you?re feeling a little down!