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The Emotional Connection Between Art And Pain

Pain is one of the most poignant of human emotions. It can be nearly impossible to articulate exactly what pain feels like, let alone describe the multitude of forms pain can take on. Whether physical or emotional, pain is our mind’s way of telling us it is uncomfortable with something. Pain is the body’s attempt to reject things it doesn’t like. Much like the contrasting emotions of love, pleasure, and happiness, our brains have powerful mechanisms in place to let us know what they want, and what they don’t want. When we tap into these bodily mechanisms (the heartbreak experienced after a breakup for example), we can often achieve a higher level of creativity than we would have access to under normal circumstances.

So what exactly is the connection between art and pain? Is it possible that pain could in fact fuel creativity? Maybe so. There is much speculation in scientific fields that “feeling sad makes us more creative”, which may very well be true in many cases. However, it could also be true that pain drives us to reach deep into our minds to find new ways of expressing ourselves. We need outlets for our hurtful emotions such as sadness, loss, heartache, and anger. Art can allow us to articulate these feelings in more detail and vividness than words can describe. Maybe pain doesn’t necessarily make creativity, maybe creativity just allows pain to be felt more fully.

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Here is an excellent example of art that was inspired by pain and suffering. The Pain Exhibit is an online collection of artwork from people who have experienced mental health problems, chronic pain, emotional suffering, and physical disability. The detail and thought-provoking ideas in each piece of artwork are incredible. It’s as if by looking at these paintings you can actually step in someone else’s shoes and imagine the thoughts and feelings running through their mind with each brush stroke. Other pieces are much more cryptic, conveying complex emotions and ideas that are harder to decipher. The whole point of art inspired by pain is that it doesn’t need to make sense. Emotional pain is something that cannot easily be put into words. This is where the phrase ‘a picture says a thousand words’ definitely comes into play.

So just how much does emotional pain ‘hurt’? Well, it turns out that physical and emotional pain actually occupy very similar neural pathways in the brain. This study goes into detail on how pain actually works in the brain and where it is felt. Physical pain can be more acute and intense, but it can also be more easily managed because it is usually associated with a specific location in the body. Treat the source of the pain at it’s location, and you alleviate the pain. Emotional pain, however, can be much harder to target because it is literally inside your head and has no tangible route cause. Emotional pain, while felt internally, is causes by outside sources, many of which are uncontrollable.

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In theory, you could take a pill to make things like sadness or resentment or grief simply go away. Certainly there are a wide range of drugs that can give the impression of doing just that. Alcohol and other drugs can be used to very effectively alter your emotional level. However, unlike taking an aspirin for a headache to alleviate the pain symptoms, drugs and alcohol can only mask emotional pain and drown it out in a cocktail of other brain-altering chemicals. It does nothing to treat the external source of pain or help one’s mind process complicated emotions. In fact, drugs and alcohol can actually inhibit the brain’s appropriate response to dealing with complicated emotions like pain.

Countless studies have shown that art, when used in conjunction with traditional medical therapy, can help to reduce symptoms in patients with chronic pain. The same goes with emotional pain. Creativity remains one of the best ways to express oneself and manage some of the most complex emotions. Making art can be a very cathartic experience that helps to allow someone to fully express what they are feeling. Even simply being around art can make people measurably happier. The relationship between pain and art is a messy one at best. Pain is one of our most strongly and deeply felt emotions, and therefore makes for the most authentic and resonating works of art. Some of the greatest and most well known artwork throughout history is surrounded in pain and suffering. The important thing to remember with pain is that a lot of beauty can come from it as well.

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