Chronic Pain & Anxiety
Does pain make you anxious?
When you experience a shooting pain you might panic a little ‘what have I done?’
Or if you live with constant pain you worry that it may never go away.
Anxiety is a normal response to pain & often the two come hand in hand.
Does this sound familiar?
“The pain is a lot worse when I am under stress” or “I get tension headaches”.
Have you ever wondered if your anxiety is making your pain worse?
Or vice versa – does your pain make your anxiety worse?
What is the trigger – the pain or the anxiety?
For many people, unfortunately, it is both.
What is anxiety?
We have all have worries.
Maybe you worry about money, your kids, or your pain.
Worry is a very normal human reaction – we all do it from time to time.
When you find yourself in constant worry – over anything & everything – even those things that are no cause for concern – you may have anxiety.
People with anxiety disorder often recognise that they are ‘over worrying’ but have no control over the worry & associated anxiety.
Anxiety is constant & can affect your ability to relax, sleep & may cause you to startle easily.
Anxiety disorders are incredibly common with approximately 40 million American adults suffering from anxiety.
That is approximately 18.1% of the population.
Anxiety is different from a phobia.
Phobias are about something in particular – spiders, sharks or clowns for example.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is an uneasy feeling about life generally.
Anxiety is also often accompanied by feelings of dread or unease.
Your mind may gallop away with worry in response to the smallest event.
Your partner is late home so you worry he has been in an accident. Perhaps your friend doesn’t call you back quickly so you stress that she is upset with you.
Unlike phobias, you cannot walk away from the trigger – there is no simple ‘off switch.’
Chronic Pain & Anxiety
If you have chronic pain or a chronic illness – you may feel like you have no control over your future.
There is a lot of additional stress in your like.
On top of physical pain, you must manage medical appointments, limited mobility, & changing financial circumstances.
Just managing daily life becomes more challenging – this can often lead to excessive worry or panic.
Even long after diagnosis, the impact of chronic pain can create worries in every area of your life.
Loss of independence, employment & sexual intimacy is all common worries – to name just a few.
It is not surprising, that researchers have found people with chronic illness have an increased risk of developing anxiety or an anxiety disorder.
People with chronic pain are 3 times more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety.
Why Anxiety Can Make Your Pain Worse
When you are in pain – a natural response is to feel anxious, worried or stressed.
When you live in constant pain it is only natural to have feelings of anxiety, stress & worry.
In response to the pain & distress, your body produces the stress hormone – cortisol.
Cortisol prepares you for ‘fight or flight’.
It does this by raising your heart rate, increasing blood flow & keeping you alert.
All great if you bump into a Great White Shark but very unhelpful for chronic pain.
Pain & stress have a nasty two-way effect.
Cortisol increases the intensity of the pain signals from your body to your brain.
The more anxious you feel when you are in pain – the more pain you feel.
Some good news is that there are several very effective ways to manage anxiety.
The first step is recognising the anxiety & getting help.
It is very easy to overlook your mental health when you are dealing with a chronic condition.
It is really important though to talk to your doctor about both your mental and physical health.
Signs of Anxiety in People with Chronic Pain
How can you tell if you are suffering from anxiety? Some very common signs include:
- Excessively worrying about your physical health
- Pain catastrophizing
- Trouble sleeping due to worry
- Having nightmares about your health
- Experiencing panic attacks about your prognosis
- Difficulty discussing your condition
- Avoiding treatments that cause you anxiety
- Avoiding social interactions
- Having intrusive thoughts about dying
- Becoming irritable about your physical health
The Black Dog Institute offers a free online anxiety assessment. This can help you determine if you need a little help with your anxiety.
It is also very common for people suffering with chronic pain to experience depression. If you would like more information you might like our article on ‘7 Surprising Signs of Depression’.
10 Ways To Manage Chronic Pain & Anxiety
There are several very effective things you can do to manage anxiety.
1) Limit or cut out caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant – which is very bad news for someone with anxiety.
The jittery feelings that caffeine can induce are a similar effect on your body to a frightening event.
Caffeine stimulates cortisol & the ‘fight or flight’ response – so is very effective at increasing both anxiety & pain.
Studies have shown that caffeine can make anxiety much worse & even trigger a panic attack.
2) Eat a healthy well-balanced diet (cut out sugar highs & lows)
Anxiety is not necessarily caused by what you eat but many foods may contribute & even worsen anxiety.
Try to eat a healthy well-balanced diet and avoid overly processed foods. Excess sugar can create jittery feelings.
Excess fat is difficult to digest & may cause tummy problems.
Opt for a Mediterranean style diet.
3) Limit or cut out alcohol
There is a strong link between alcohol & anxiety. Research has found that alcohol abuse can lead to anxiety or anxiety attacks.
On the flip side, people who suffer from anxiety have a higher risk of abusing alcohol.
No matter which comes first alcohol & anxiety can become a vicious cycle.
4) Regular exercise
Exercise has benefits that go far beyond just the physical.
During exercise, your body produces serotonin, which can reduce anxiety & relieve pain.
Researchers have found that just five minutes of exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
Although it is not easy to exercise when you live with chronic pain – it is possible!
Mindfulness requires you to be aware of what is happening in the present moment without judgment.
It has an enormous number of proven health benefits including reducing pain & anxiety.
Like any form of exercise, mindfulness gets easier with practice.
This article on Mindfulness for Chronic Pain provides useful tips on how to ‘do’ mindfulness.
6) Essential oils
Essential oils have been around for thousands of years & now science has corroborated the health benefits.
Essential oils are a natural remedy for anxiety and chronic pain.
The top 3 oils for anxiety are Lavender, Ylang Ylang & Rose.
7) Practise psychological strategies
There are many psychological strategies that are very effective at reducing anxiety.
Some of the most common include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) & acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT).
Both methods involve teaching you strategies to step back from your internal voice & reduce the impact of negative thoughts. Both of these strategies are covered in our holistic program Control My Pain Project.
8) Find a support group
Living with chronic pain & anxiety can be isolating.
Unpredictable symptoms, low levels of energy & troubling thoughts make socialising a challenge.
It can be difficult for loved ones to understand all of the unique complexities of life with pain & anxiety.
Support groups can be a wonderful way to connect with people through shared experience.
Check out your local GP or community centre to find a local group.
Also, don’t be shy to turn online. There are a huge number of warm & welcoming ‘spoonie’ communities online.
Just search on popular social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram & Twitter.
9) Recruit the right team
Patients with chronic pain & anxiety benefit most from a multi-disciplinary team who communicate regularly.
There are a number of health professionals that can help you including doctors, psychologists, physiotherapists & nutritionists.
If your team are all ‘singing of off the same hymn sheet’ you have a much greater chance of success.
10) Be kind to yourself
Anxious thoughts are a perfectly natural response to chronic pain.
Don’t beat yourself up!
It is really important to acknowledge all of your success, big & small.
Keep track of every positive step you take – a walk, seeing the counsellor, a visit with friends.
They are all a step in the right direction.
Acknowledging your wins can help you to regain a greater sense of control over your life & your future.
Chronic pain & anxiety often come hand in hand.
Chronic pain creates a lot of worries from physical damage to finances & even sexual intimacy.
Anxiety is a very natural response to these additional worries.
Unfortunately, anxiety can make your pain worse in some cases has even been found to be the cause of the pain itself.
The good news is that there are a lot of very effective ways to manage anxiety.
The first step is recognising the symptoms of anxiety.
Simple lifestyle changes for managing anxiety include reducing caffeine & alcohol & taking some gentle exercise.
You may also really benefit from alternative therapies such as mindfulness or essential oils.
Life with chronic pain can be isolating so reach out to a support group. There are lots of very welcoming organisations both locally & online.
When you live with chronic pain & anxiety – it is really important to be kind to yourself.
Recognise all your successes no matter how big or small.
What do you do to manage anxiety?