Why Invalidating People’s Pain Can Lead Them to Experience Depression
“Stop it, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad. You’re overreacting.”
“You’re just being overly sensitive.”
“Can you stop making this a big deal, please? People have it so much worse.”
Many of us have been at the receiving end of these dismissive statements before — especially, women, whose pain is routinely dismissed by the medical community. The consequence of having their experiences undermined, however, extends beyond delayed diagnoses or systemic barriers to early intervention; it impacts people’s mental health too, according to a new study.
Published in Frontiers in Psychology, the study included 478 individuals — mostly women, some men, a few who didn’t disclose their gender identity, and one who reported themselves as “other.” The researchers assessed whether the participants had been subjected to invalidation of their pain, and how it affected them. 98.9% and 99.4% respectively had their pain invalidated by friends and family, and 95.5% by medical professionals. The result: depression.
“When other people invalidate a person’s pain, they may communicate that the person in pain is not worthy of empathy or support… This, in turn, may cause the person suffering from pain to question their own subjective state and their value as a human, creating feelings of shame, and inadequacy,” the study notes.
According to the researchers, this shame is what drives the eventual depression.
Related on The Swaddle:
“Shame fully mediated the relationship between frequency of pain invalidation — whether from one’s family, friends, or medical professionals — and depression symptoms,” the researchers stated. “Shame is ultimately an interpersonal emotion that involves gauging one’s self in relation to others’ expectations, whether that be behavioral or emotional in nature… Doubting one’s self-worth while still experiencing pain that others do not believe may culminate in depressive states.”
Many believe invalidation per se to be a form of emotional abuse — just like gaslighting, it causes people to doubt their own lived experiences. Not only that, but it also communicates to the person being invalidated that their experiences are insignificant.
While invalidation can thus serve as a tool to manipulate and control people, sometimes, it’s unintentional too — either as a result of the listener being unable to empathize or because they are actually convinced that belittling someone’s pain will help ease them out of it. No matter the reason, the result is scarring on the person being invalidated.
What’s even more unfortunate is that depression can increase the likelihood of the acute pain one is experiencing, turning into chronic pain over time. Often, depression can worsen one’s feelings of pain, in addition to even causing inexplicable backaches or headaches — compounding their existing plight. Reportedly, depression and chronic pain share the same neurotransmitters and nerve pathways — explaining the almost cyclical link between the two.
One way, perhaps, to avoid activating the pain-depression trap is to eliminate shame, which contributes to deterioration in a person’s mental health. “…broader cultural understanding about the subjective nature of pain and the importance of social support for those experiencing pain may protect against the mutually reinforcing depression-pain cycle,” the researchers wrote.
In addition, they believe steering away from invalidating people’s pain can also facilitate better medical outcomes for them. “Listening to the pain reported by patients and validating their subjective pain experience may foster interpersonal trust between patients and providers and improve pain outcomes,” the study concludes.