As we come to the end of Stress Awareness Month, I thought I would take a look at how stress impacts on chronic pain and how chronic/ persistent pain can make stress worse.
If you suffer from chronic pain, you will know something of this. You are probably already aware how stress can make your pain feel worse and how concern about what is happening with your pain can make your feel stressed.
The two are closely linked, and in a series of very specific ways. The good news is, if we understand how this link works, we can break the cycle. That means the end of that dreadful experience of stress leading to pain which leads to more stress-and more pain.
If that sounds familiar, then read on. The more we understand the easier it will be to break the cycle.
How stress can cause pain, or make it worse
Stress is a natural part of living. In its place it can be a positive thing, keeping us on our toes and preparing us for danger. Unfortunately, most stress is not like this. It goes on and on and in doing so can cause complete havoc with our bodies. This is even worse if you suffer from chronic pain, it will act as an echo chamber.
Nearly everyone who suffers from stress will report some form of pain. This can be unexplained headache or stomach pain for example, or it can be an existing pain, say from an old injury which always feels worse when you are under stress. And of course, that makes things worse. You will feel more out of sorts, and less inclined to do things that can help deal with the stress such as exercise. The pain, which to you may appear mysterious and unexplained, might frighten you and cause health anxiety and that will make you more stressed. All in all, it is a nasty cocktail designed to make you feel rotten.
Why does this happen?
Firstly, stress affects your muscles and joints. If you are stressed your muscles will tighten up. This can cause pain in itself or it can cause flare-ups of existing conditions such as arthritis or fibromyalgia.
Another factor is how you perceive pain. If you are stressed your pain threshold is likely to be lower. This means any pain will fee much worse.
Stress will also affect your heart and lungs – that is your whole system. Again, this can affect pain. You will have more cortisol flowing around your body this can cause shortness of breath which will put stress on your body and make you feel worse. A word of warning here, do not ignore symptoms such as breathlessness, they should be checked out at your GP. But if you find there is no obvious disease then stress management might be the best way forward.
The stressed body will also affect your digestive system. You may find you get stomach aches or have conditions such as acid reflux.
Your skin can be affected by stress. When your natural balance is upset you may find any skin conditions you have worsen, if you then start scratching an eczema patch for example that can be painful itself.
Taking an active role in managing your stress.
All in all, stress makes you feel rotten and can make any pain you have worse or even cause pain.
This happens because of the way your system reacts. You are not imagining it. It is a real thing. But you do not have to put up with it. Stress can be controlled so let’s move on to see how.
When I see clients in my pain psychology clinic, currently online, I always talk to them about their role in managing their own stress. No-one can manage your stress for you. Experts like me can help and guide but it is the action you take which will make the difference in the end.
Do not fear chronic pain.
One thing which can really help is understanding how chronic pain works. It is very important to take on board that you can move with pain, it does not necessarily mean your body is suffering more damage. (I would advise that you go to your GP to find out more about your particular condition so you can feel confident about moving.) The key thing to grasp is that for chronic pain sufferers it is okay to move even if you are feeling some pain. Do not fear you will make things worse. In fact, in most cases movement will do you good.
Movement is the magic ingredient.
Remember we talked about how muscles seize up if you do not move and that can cause more pain. Your instinct may be to keep still, but this will make things worse. So, move and you will lessen the pain. Movement, in the form of gentle exercise, is also about the best thing you can do to lower your stress levels. So, some gentle exercise will be working on two levels. It will ease up your muscles and that will ease the pain. And it will lower the stress and that will mean your muscles relax and the pain will lessen.
You will be doing something else as well. Many people who suffer from chronic pain but have never been taught how to manage it live in fear.Perhaps you recognise these thoughts. Thoughts such as ‘If I move it will get worse.’ ‘I dread waking up in the morning in case it is worse. When I wake up, I must lie still.’.
I would advise that you see an expert such as me and together we can begin to get rid of that fear. I can support you to develop a programme of movement which will relax your muscles and ease your pain. Through that, you will learn that even if you do have some pain, you can take action to lessen it. You need not stay frightened.
The danger of fear.
And of course, fear is one of the most potent emotions we have. It is one of the easiest ways to induce stress. You can do a thought experiment to prove this here.
Imagine you have pain, and you are scared. Those ideas are running through your head, ‘will it ever go?’ ‘what is it, will it get worse?’. Now imagine that same pain where you know what it is, accept that it is part of your life, but that you can control it and still do activities you enjoy. The second feels much less awful, doesn’t it? Again, help from an expert can be invaluable here. Mind techniques such as hypnosis and visualization can help put pain in its place. It can help you cultivate the mindset which is best for you to deal with your situation. Part of this will be to reduce stress. And many other things will reduce stress as a side-benefit, exercise is the best example of this.
Breathing is the best medicine.
Stress is right at the heart of the mind–body connection. If you are stressed, then learning to calm to body down will do wonders and will help you control your pain. Breathing is the magic technique here. Specifically deep breathing using the diaphragm. This is simple to do. Put a hand on your middle and breathe slowly through your nose. Hold the breath for as long as feels comfortable and then breathe out through your mouth. Just doing this tells your nervous system that danger is not imminent, your stress mechanism can stand down. Your stress levels will fall. There is nothing mysterious about this. It is just the way our bodies and our minds work.
I often advise clients to do this for themselves every day whether they feel stressed or in pain or not. It will improve your general health. It will also tell you that you are in control.
You control your stress, it does not control you and by controlling your stress you lessen your pain.
If you want to know more do contact me. I can help you control your pain and lessen your stress. This will lead to a better life and morehappiness. And that must be good.