Stress is something many of us are familiar with. Between work, relationships, family, uncertainty in world affairs and ever-present political discord, stress never seems to subside. Unfortunately, stress can be extremely damaging to your health — especially if you suffer from chronic pain.
For twenty-five years, The Health Resource Network and health professionals across the U.S. have come together in April to promote awareness about the causes and treatments for stress, an often misunderstood and underdiagnosed health epidemic. According to the American Psychological Association, nearly half of all Americans have experienced an increase in stress over the last five years. Almost 8 of 10 people regularly experience the physical symptoms of stress, while more than 7 of 10 people regularly endure the psychological symptoms caused by stress.
When your doctor asks about your stress level the question may seem unrelated to the pain you’re experiencing, but there is a strong correlation. Stress caused by other factors in your life can make chronic pain worse. At the same time, pain and discomfort can make you more stressed.
If you can’t manage your stress, you’ll be trapped in a vicious cycle of agony and distress.
On the Aches and Gains radio show, I explore the solutions for conquering pain caused by stress and how to counter the negative impact of stress with guest Dr. Kathleen Hall, an international stress expert and founder of The Stress Institute® and Mindful Living Network®. Our two-part interview is available on-demand (Part I, Part II).
How Stress and Pain Are Related
To understand the connection between pain and stress, let’s look at what the American Psychological Association tells us typically happens when you’re overly stressed.
When you’re experiencing stress — regardless of the source — your body assumes you are under threat or immediate danger. To help protect you, it sends you into “fight-or-flight” mode, essentially giving you the extra energy and alertness you need to fight off the threat. In most situations, this response is appropriate and will help you out of a challenging situation. Once you’re away from the risk, your stress level lowers and your body restores to normal.
But stress can also appear when you’re not in immediate danger or under threat, meaning the response isn’t necessary. Unfortunately, your body can’t tell the difference between emotional stress, such as a difficult time in your relationship, and a physical stress, such as a car accident. This means as long as you’re dealing with an emotional stress, your body will attempt to put you into “fight-or-flight” mode.
When you’re under stress, your body is constantly prepared for an emergency reaction. This means your muscles are engaged, your heart is pounding faster, your breath quickens and your blood pressure rises – all things that may make your chronic pain worse. The hyper state of distress can trigger pain in several areas of the body, or exacerbate existing pain, manifesting as muscular pain, abdominal pain, and pelvic pain. Sufferers may experience tension headaches caused by tension in shoulders, neck, and head; migraine headaches; and low back pain.
In the short-term, this heightened level of awareness can cause sleep problems and poor eating habits. You may become sleep deprived or reach for foods that can make you gain weight or cause painful inflammation. Stress can also cause painful skin conditions to appear or flare up, including acne, eczema, rashes, and hives.
Chronic stress can have more severe consequences in the long-term, according to the American Institute of Stress. In addition to depression and anxiety, unmanaged stress can make you more at risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Reducing Your Pain by Managing Your Stress
Stress may be common in your life, but the constant state of agitation can have serious side effects on your body and health. As your stress levels increase, your pain levels can increase as well. To reduce your pain, you need to reduce your stress.
Unfortunately, many people turn to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco for help eliminating stress. While a beer or glass of wine can help take the edge off once in awhile, these habits can lead to abuse and other complications. To effectively eliminate the stress that may be causing you pain, you need to find better ways to help calm your mind.
For most of us, reducing stress seems like a concept that is easier said than done. It isn’t possible for us to all walk away from the problems in our lives causing us stress, but we are able to develop coping mechanisms to help us lower our anxiety levels. Here are some ideas for managing your stress and reducing your pain:
- Take a yoga class
- Practice meditation
- Go for a walk or jog around the block
- Properly plan your work and take frequent breaks
- Reduce your caffeine intake
Because everyone has different reasons for stress, it’s hard to say what exactly will help you reduce yours. To effectively manage your stress and reduce the pain associated with it, find the source of what is causing anxiety – a source of stress.
What can you do to change or eliminate it? Create a plan and stick to it.
As always, talk with your doctor about the pain you’re experiencing and if you’re struggling to reduce your stress level. If you’re unable to find a solution on your own, that doesn’t mean you need to suffer in pain. Your medical team can help.
Remember, no one is immune to pain, but together we can overcome it.