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Pain and anxiety: can we worry ourselves into pain and physical problems?

I write a lot here about how we can cope with chronic pain by using non-drug methods using various psychological approaches and  hypnotherapy. This time I am going to take a bit of a different angle. I am going to look at how our mental states can make pain worse and in some cases even create it.

There is a lot of evidence that people who have persistent anxiety are at more risk of developing physical illnesses. Specially, they are more likely to develop chronic conditions. Let’s start be looking at why this is.

What happens when we are anxious?

We know that anxiety feelings are closely linked to activity in the amygdala region of our brains. This is the region which generates our emotional responses. As this brain region begins to work, our heart and breathing rates increase, our muscles tense and our blood flow is diverted to those organs of our body which are involved in our flight and fight response. In short, our bodies go into high alert. This is an essential state if we are in real physical danger, but if we are not and it goes on for a long time, it wears us out. 

This diversion of blood flow and heightened response can cause specific physical problems. Digestive problems such as nausea and diarrhoea are common, for example. Migraine headaches are more likely and more severe as is dizziness and light-headedness. Muscle pain for which no particular physical cause can be found is also part of the pattern. 

Pain which may be pre-existing, such as back pain may feel much worse. 

On top of these direct physical consequences, if we are very anxious we do not look after ourselves well and that has consequences for our physical health. It is harder to maintain a healthy lifestyle if you are in a heightened state of anxiety. For example, over-eating and comfort eating (bingeing on sweet, sugary foods for example), lack of exercise and substance abuse can become ways of coping. These fixes may seem to have a short-term effect of lessening anxiety but they take a long-term toll, which can damage our health and lead to pain. 

How anxiety can cause serious disease

We have talked about what a toll anxiety takes on the system. This ‘wearing out’ can have very bad long-term consequences. Heart diseases, respiratory disorders, and digestive conditions can all arise as a consequence. 

These problems are very, very common in modern societies. Twenty percent of people suffer from serious digestive problems for example. 

People who have serious respiratory disorders, such as COPD, are likely to find that they are made much worse, and hospitalisation is much more likely if they are suffering from chronic anxiety. In this case it does not seem that anxiety causes this problem but it certainly makes it worse. It affects the quality of life in a very serious way. 

Anxiety certainly plays a role in heart disease. A very big study of nurses’ health, for example, showed that nurses who had severe anxiety related to phobias were more likely to have a heart attack than those with very low levels of anxiety. Another study found that in post-menopausal women a history of full-blown panic attacks tripled the risk of a stroke.

Anxiety is life-limiting as well as life threatening

So, anxiety is serious and can be life-threatening. But it is also life-limiting. This is what I see most in my psychology/hypnotherapy for pain clinics in Bedford, Milton Keynes and via video call. 

Chronic pain is so personal and so malleable. People who are anxious feel their pain much more severely and that stops them leading fulfilling and happy lives. In short, it makes them more miserable. But it also has another consequence. If you are feeling your pain particularly severely, it is likely that you will feel less able to move about and to take exercise. This means your body will loss muscle strength and stiffen up. This in itself will make the pain worse and you will be trapped in a vicious circle.

What can we do?

So, what can we do? Fortunately, there are tried and tested approaches to reducing anxiety and improving your physical health. I use a whole range of these in my pain reduction clinics. Here are some:

We can use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which can address our emotions and coping strategies and change them to be healthier for us. By learning to manage our pain we can change the physical responses in our brains. We can break the vicious circle of pain, stress, stress making the pain worse, and causing more pain. 

Another technique I use is hypnotherapy. This can make suggestions which I will make to my clients to reduce pain much more powerful. We can develop very effective ways which will distract you from your chronic pain. Hypnotherapy is also a very effective technique for relaxation, which can break the cycle we talked about above. We can very quickly reduce the muscle tension which makes pain feel worse. We can also work with techniques of mental relaxation which will take away a fear of pain.

We also use these techniques to explore the underlying reasons for anxiety. Causes of anxiety can be a variety of things, they are unique to you and come from your unique experiences and world view. But there are some common threads, beliefs you hold, lack of confidence, an unresolved hurt in your past are often the causes of the trouble. We can explore these and find better ways for you to cope. And if we can lessen that anxiety then it is very likely your pain will diminish as well. 

All these techniques are about unlearning, unhelpful behaviours and learning more helpful ways of coping. It can take a bit of time, but under expert guidance from someone like me it can be done. Even if you have suffered from pain for a long time, we can make progress. 

If you would like to read more about this here is an excellent article.

So, if this sounds like you please call me today. 

Wishing you a less pain day

Dr Sue

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