Did you know that when we feel emotional pain, the same areas of our brains get activated when we feel physical pain? Yet, we react quite differently when we see a person experiencing physical versus emotional pain. Imagine though, you’re experiencing severe emotional distress and because it doesn’t manifest itself in a cut, bruise or physical injury, no one asks you if you’re OK or if you need help. You don’t receive the same compassion or concern for what you’re enduring as a person who has a broken leg and walks with crutches or is physically bound to a wheelchair.

Millions of Americans have been trained in First Aid and they know what to do if a stranger suddenly clutches his chest and collapses. What if the same stranger is instead having a panic attack? It is much less clear what you can do to help.

As part of our Campaign for Compassion, Riveredge Hospital hopes to help our community understand the differences between physical wounds and emotional ones that may be more difficult to recognize. This is not to say that one type of wound is more important than another, rather it’s a challenge to be equally open and compassionate to peoples’ experiences. These are just a few of the differences between physical and emotional wounds to think about:

  1. VISIBILITY – Just because you don’t see the wound doesn’t mean a person isn’t hurting

Physical wounds are visible to us. We can see a broken bone, a scar, a wheelchair. Others respond to these visible signs with sympathy and empathy and often, accommodations. By and large, there are no visible signs of emotional wounds. Instead, a person often experiences social isolation. Sometimes their emotional wounds result in their own isolation. Other times, those with emotional wounds are regarded as “moody” or “difficult” and thus, are isolated by peers. This takes us to our next difference, compassion.

  1. COMPASSION – Being mindful that every person you meet has some emotional wounds

The person described as “moody” or “difficult” is dealing with an internal struggle. When we see somebody with a physical wound, we express concern and sympathy. We typically ask if they are OK or if they need help, right? There was a recent online article about a girl forced into the trunk of her car by an armed assailant. The comments beneath the article seemed to blame the victim for being in her unfortunate situation. Many asked, “Why didn’t she run? Why didn’t she run him over?”

If we hear someone struggles with mental illness, we would rather say nothing or socially isolate due to our own discomfort. Sometimes we try to offer “just” advice such as, “You just need to exercise more,” or “Shake it off. You just need to get out and socialize.” In reality, it’s just not a compassionate response. A way to think about responding is putting yourself in their shoes and instead saying, “Wow, I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Do you want to talk about it? I’m here to listen and support you.”

  1. HEALING TIME – Sorry, emotional bandages don’t actually exist.

A physical wound often has a time frame for recovery attached. A broken bone will have a cast for 3 weeks. Radiation therapies have a specified number of sessions planned. When treating a physical wound, rarely does another physical wound emerge. With emotional wounds, there is no time frame for recovery. While therapy has proven beneficial, there is no number of sessions scientifically proven to resolve the wounds. Often, in contrast to physical wounds, as emotional wounds are addressed, more wounds are discovered. Many emotional wounds are complex and can be layered with multiple traumas.

  1. THE EXPERIENCE – It can be difficult to understand ‘why’

Physical wounds have a start date. At the very least, a diagnosis date. It is easier to identify the onset of physical symptoms because we respond to changes in our physical capabilities and pain. These are also easier to describe to friends, family and providers without fear of judgment. Emotional wounds may involve an actual experience, such as a traumatic event. Many times, however, there is no identifiable “cause” and the first symptoms tend to be written off because they are not physical. Symptoms like decreased sleep, energy and fatigue lead to internal and external blame which can exacerbate the symptoms. The thought of sharing these symptoms often arouse feelings of shame and inadequacy.

  1. LONG TERM IMPACT – A scar that won’t fade

While some physical injuries may cause a scar, the impact of those injuries often have a recovery date. The long term impact of emotional wounds can be life long and progressive. The scars are not visible, but unlike physical scars, they often grow rather than fade over time. Emotional wounds can lead to other problems such as physical ailments, anxiety, low self-esteem and long term mental health issues.

Many times, physical and emotional wounds run hand-in-hand. Physical injury can be traumatic and may perpetuate emotional injury and vice versa, but the hope of this article is to cause us to stop and think about emotional health and pay attention to it – to be open to it, and to understand it a little better.