The Emotional-Physical Reciprocity Principle

Tony Robbins once said, “You get what you tolerate.” The subtext here being: What you tolerate in life is a direct reflection of your own self-esteem.

As a therapist, I think about this a lot.

On one end of the spectrum, I think of Tom Brady, who’s diet is so impeccable he doesn’t even tolerate eating bread.

On the other hand, I think of many of the clients I see struggling with depression, many of whom are smokers. Not a one of them doesn’t know that smoking is harmful, and yet, they often do it anyways.

I often wonder, what’s really going on here???

One simple definition of psychology is the study of human behavior and thinking.

And one of the goals of psychology is to give labels to human behaviors and tendencies as to increase our awareness to this tendencies so we can have greater control in our lives.

For example, I believe everyone would benefit from knowing the basics of self-fulfilling prophecies, cognitive dissonance, learned helplessness, projection, and the fundamental attribution error, and yet for most of us, many of these terms are as foreign as if I wrote them in Spanish.

Further still, psychology is a relative new field in human history and there are many complex behavioral tendencies that we have yet to identify and label.

Recently, I believe I’ve stumbled upon one of these unlabeled tendencies.

I call it the “Emotional-Physical Reciprocity Principle,” or the EPR principle, for short.

My theory is that when we experience emotional pain is it natural to seek physical pain as a calming response.


Distress situation: you unexpectedly lose a loved one


you pick a fight
You run to the point of exhaustion
You drink to the point of an extreme hangover the next day

My theory is that when we experience extreme emotional pain, self-induced physical pain helps calm us by settling cognitive dissonance.

(It could also by why depressed people are more likely to be smokers)

Said another way: “Now that I’m in physical pain, my emotional pain makes sense to me and better matches the feelings of my body.” (And vice versa)

As therapists, we see this often, but to my knowledge no one has proven it or coined a term for it.

So how could we prove or deny this theory:

Step 1: Cause someone some brief emotional pain (experimental group) or not (control group)

Perhaps this could be done through watching media – like watching someone go the grieving process (mirror neurons in the brain lead to the vicarious, but relatively safe, experience of distress)

Step 2: Give them (the participants) an option for a pain response or a neutral response

For example, the option to snap a rubber band on their wrist, or smoke a single cigarette.

Results: see if emotional pain correlates with increased voluntary physical pain or self-harm.

So why does this matter? Why would another term help advance the movement of psychology??

Well, if we think about how this relates to therapists: if this principle exists and is a natural response, we could better help our clients sublimate the pain into physical experiences as constructively and safely as possible.

And how this relates to and helps everyone: if this principle is better understood, that increased awareness could stop the self-harm from happening unconsciously or unintentionally, thus lowering rates of drug use and self-harm.

And that’s why the Emotional-Physical Reciprocity Principle matters!

Thanks for your time in reading this blog post!

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