Feeling a Loved One’s Pain – Drama or Reality?

When people report feeling the pain of a loved one, is it solely a romantic or dramatic exclamation or does it actually reflect an authentic physiological reaction supported by scientific findings?

For centuries, romantic stories, ballads, songs and plays have depicted the agony of rejected lovers, some of whom were so despondent by the rejection that they lost their will to live. Those touching themes may have appeared to many as excessively melodramatic and unbelievable. Other stories of inseparable lovers inspired some to passionately seek the “love of their life”.

Recent cognitive neuroscience studies confirmed that a compassionate connection with a loved one can actually activate neurological changes in one’s brain that enables us to truly feel a beloved’s pain. In 2003, using fMRI images, Naomi Eisenberg of UCLA discovered the commonalities between social and physical pain that explained “why it ‘hurts’ to lose someone we love.” She wrote, “To the extent that being separated from a caregiver or from a social group is detrimental to survival, being ‘hurt’ by this separation may have been an adaptive way to prevent it.”

Researcher Zhansheng Chen at Purdue University found that his study subjects recalled greater emotional pain associated with past betrayal than they did from grave physical injuries

Sarah Master of UCLA reported that social support could relieve the intensity of physical pain and that the mere thought of the caring person was sufficient to provide comfort to the sufferer.

As technology enables greater research avenues, a more clear connection between physiology and psychology emerged. Alessio Avenanti, PhD, of the University of Rome and colleagues, found that “empathy is more than an emotional experience. It is also a sensory and motor experience. This means that humans have a “pain resonance system” that extracts painful aspects of another person’s pain and maps them onto their own bodies. Thus feeling others’ pain is not just an emotional experience, it is also an automatic, physical experience.”

With emerging scientific evidence of the power of compassion and empathy in healing, it appears that future research may pave the way to physiological healing, in part, through love and emotional connection. This path appears to be very positive and promising.

Our culture has had a long history of utilizing religious and spiritual support in facilitating faithful individuals’ path to healing. The idea of utilizing the power of love and human connection as additional avenues of physical healing is an exciting and promising addition to the burgeoning technical advancement towards health.

Use your love to heal others:

  • Honor your positive emotions and express your love for others to enhance and sustain your and their wellbeing.
  • Use caring, compassion, tenderness and affirmation to reduce your loved one’s hurts, pains or distress as you solidify your healing bond.
  • Cultivate your positive energy to help yourself and others in enriching your human connection, sense of wellbeing, shared love and enhanced health.
  • Rejoice about the power of compassion in enhancing your and others’ health.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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