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The Stress-Pain Connection: Stay Mindful of Root Causes to Find Relief

Stress and chronic pain have a complex relationship, as they share significant conceptual and physiological overlaps. Pain and stress are both adaptive in protecting the body, but if either become chronic, it can lead to long-term suffering and compromised well-being.

Constant stress can also lead to the worsening of pain, or vice versa. And persistence of stress, whether emotional or physiological, can deplete the body’s resources and increase its risk for disease.

When Pain Leads to Stress

Chronic pain is widespread, affecting 20 to 30 percent of adults. While treatment is available, almost half of patients with chronic pain do not find adequate pain management.

Living with pain day after day can be stressful in and of itself, which can lead to mental health problems. In fact, one-third of adults with arthritis experience anxiety or depression. Pain can actually be a common symptom—and sometimes a good indicator—of an anxiety disorder. When paired with chronic pain, an anxiety disorder can be difficult to treat because people with anxiety may be more fearful of medication side effects or more sensitive to various treatments.

Plus, when you have chronic pain, it’s always on your mind. Living with chronic pain can make you feel like you’re not able to do some of the activities you want to do. For example, people with arthritis can have trouble with simple tasks such as bending, carrying groceries, or climbing stairs.

Chronic pain can also lead to stress overload in the body and brain, resulting in an increased risk for depression, alcohol abuse, or weight gain. Persistent pain can burden the brain and lead to shortfalls in decision-making. Plus, fear of pain that is aggravated by movement can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, removing stress-relief options such as exercise from everyday life.

If you’ve had a difficult time finding ways to manage your pain, it can take a toll on your emotions, too—you may feel angry, frustrated, anxious, or depressed.

How Stress Can Be a Pain

Stress can make chronic pain worse. With chronic stress, your body might suppress immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive systems, which can cause them to stop working normally and lead to more serious health problems over the long term. Stress can also cause digestive problems, headaches, sleeplessness, or irritability. People under chronic stress can experience more frequent viral infections such as the flu or common cold, too.

Stress also causes your muscles to tense, which increases pain. It’s like a reflex reaction to stress—the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. Therefore, chronic stress can cause your muscles to be in a constant state of guardedness. This can lead to tension headaches, migraines, and painful tenseness in the shoulders and neck.

When you feel stressed, levels of the hormone cortisol rise, too. This can cause inflammation and pain over time.

When stress is constant, your body doesn’t get a clear signal to return to normal. So over time, the continued strain on your body may also contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses. 

What You Can Do

Many of the steps you can take to control stress will also reduce your pain. Here are some lifestyle changes that can improve both:

  • Stay active—Physical activity reduces stiffness and boosts mood. Try low-impact activities such as biking, swimming, and walking. Yoga has also been shown to improve function and relieve symptoms of pain.

  • Sleep well—Getting enough sleep at night is important for your physical and emotional well-being. Try going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Avoid caffeine late in the day so it doesn’t affect your sleep.

  • Find distractions—When you’re in pain, find ways to take your mind off of it. You could take a walk, watch a movie, or meet up with a friend. Activities that you enjoy doing can help you better cope with pain.

  • Eat smartly—To help relieve stress, try eating foods with B vitamins (such as bananas, avocados, chicken, and fish)—studies show that these vitamins decrease stress by regulating nerves and brain cells. If you experience anxiety in particular, avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can trigger panic attacks and worsen anxiety symptoms.

  • Visit the spa—Research suggests that massage can have short-term benefits in reducing pain, particularly for people with lower back problems. The experience of massage can be relaxing enough to reduce stress, too.

  • Socialize—It is important to stay connected with people who can provide emotional support. If you are feeling stressed, ask for help from friends, family, and others in your community.

  • Prioritize—Life gets busy. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, set goals that will keep your stress levels in check. At the end of each day, focus on the tasks you accomplished, rather than those that are still on your to-do list.

If you experience chronic pain along with stress, anxiety, or depression, talk with your doctor. Your doctor can make sure you’re on the best treatment plan for your condition and symptoms. He or she can also refer you to a mental health provider who can help you develop new coping skills, which can make a difference in how you feel in your body and mind.

© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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