June 19, 2019
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It may be difficult to understand how the emotions and feelings within our own minds can impact our bodies, but the connection between stress and pain has been well documented in numerous research studies. Not only can stress cause or worsen pain all on its own, but dealing with chronic pain can, in turn, cause stress levels to rise, creating a vicious cycle of stress and pain that has a profoundly negative effect on a person’s health and quality of life.
Why Does Stress Cause Pain?
The exact way that stress causes pain isn’t completely clear, but there are many ideas. One theory is that a person experiencing stress tenses their muscles for long periods of time, leading to pain in the neck and back. Headaches are also common in people experiencing a great deal of stress. A related theory notes that the brain plays a main role in pain perception, and when it’s overwhelmed by stress, it’s ability to filter pain signals might not be as strong, leading to more and worsened pain. Another theory relates to how the body reacts during an extremely stressful event.
When something traumatic or overwhelming happens to you (such as the loss of a loved one or being in a terrifying car accident), your fight-or-flight response kicks into overdrive. Surges of adrenaline are released by your body in a primitive attempt to protect you from danger, increasing your heart rate and strengthening your awareness.
If you remain in this heightened state of fear, such as from post-traumatic stress disorder, it may not be easy for your body to return to its formerly relaxed state. Instead, you remain in a kind of hypervigilant, stressed state that releases continued chemicals, like cortisol, into the body, and affects important vital signs like your blood pressure and blood glucose. Both of these rise when you are under chronic stress. This can then lead to health problems — and the related physical pain of those problems. In fact, upwards of 30% of people who experience chronic pain also have post-traumatic stress disorder.
While it’s extremely important for anyone suffering pain or unusual symptoms to visit their physician for a diagnosis, another frustrating aspect of stress is that the brain can play tricks on the body when in extreme distress. This can occasionally cause symptoms, known as psychosomatic symptoms, that aren’t indicative of an actual illness, but of stress itself. Fatigue or stomach problems, for instance, can be caused directly by stress or by another illness, leading to confusion (and certainly not helping stress levels) for the person experiencing the problem.
Reducing Stress to Help Your Chronic Pain
If you think that stress could be affecting your pain levels, talk with your doctor. Think about your life — have you experienced any big changes or traumatic events lately? Have work or money problems? These could all be signs of increased stress in the body.
Regardless of the cause of your pain, improving your stress levels will have a tremendous impact on your wellbeing. There are many ways that you can reduce stress:
- Confirm with your doctor that it’s okay for you to try gentle, mindful exercise that has been shown to be effective for stress reduction and overall health, like walking, swimming, yoga, or tai chi.
- Consider therapy to discuss your stresses or any feelings of anxiety. There are many therapies available that can help you cope with your stress. If needed, there are also medications that can help.
- Remember to make time for yourself. Enjoy a warm bath? A cup of tea? What about a good book or a trip to the movie theater? Hobbies, as well, can provide a welcome distraction from stress. Take the time to participate in your favorite activities.
- Stress can negatively affect your eating and sleeping habits. Try to keep a regular, consistent bedtime routine and eat as healthily as possible. Eating excessive junk food or sleeping less will make stress — and pain — far worse.
End the Cycle of Stress and Pain
Reducing your stress level can make a world of difference for your pain. The cycle of stress and pain has been well-documented. However, don’t assume that any pain is just stress and can be ignored, either. Talk openly with your Riverside Pain physician about your mind and body needs. Together, you can create a pain management plan that improves your health and your comfort while keeping your stress levels at a minimum.
Looking for a pain management team? Send us a message online or visit us at one of our four locations in Jacksonville: Orange Park, Southside, Monument, or Jacksonville Beach.
Tags: chronic pain, physical pain, stress