Chronic stress and chronic pain go hand in hand.
We have all experienced a thumping headache at the end of a stressful day.
Tension and stress build up all day. Leaving you with a pounding headache.
You have probably noticed the link between chronic pain and stress.
Does your back hurt more when you are stressed?
You are not alone.
Stress is a major health problem in the modern world.
- 33% of people reported experiencing high levels of stress at one point or another.
- The WHO report that workplace stress alone costs the global economy $1 trillion USD each year in lost productivity.
The statistics surrounding stress and chronic pain are even more shocking.
One in three people with chronic pain have very high levels of stress and psychological distress.
We are all guilty of accepting stress as a fact of modern life.
Stress is something we all experience from time to time. For some people the stress can become chronic stress.
Chronic stress can be particularly hard on your health – and especially your chronic pain.
The first step in easing your stress and healing your pain is to identify if you are suffering from chronic stress.
What is stress?
Stress is defined as a mental strain or emotional reaction caused by difficult circumstances.
This definition doesn’t quite do stress justice.
Stress is a whole of body reaction.
Stress triggers our bodies fight or flight response.
When your brain perceives a threat it floods your entire body with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
These hormones set off a sequence of physical responses such as a raised heart rate and sweating.
Historically, these responses were incredibly valuable and helped us to stay alive.
If you stumble across a bear in a cave, stress hormones help you to react quickly.
So you can run or fight.
In modern life however, the physical responses to stress are a lot less helpful.
They can be uncomfortable and in the case of chronic stress – detrimental to your health.
Signs of chronic stress
Chronic stress can have very harmful effects on your health.
Stress is linked to a long list of health conditions and physical ailments.
Common signs of chronic stress include:
1) Chronic pain
Increased stress levels often lead to an increase in aches and pains. Persistent back pain or tightness and pain in the neck are commonly linked to stress.
A study of teenagers suffering from sickle cell disease found that higher levels of stress led to higher levels of pain.
The tension headache is a widely recognized consequence of stress.
A large study found that those people with a higher stress intensity were more likely to suffer frequent headaches.
Another study of people with chronic headaches found that a stressful event preceded the headaches in around 45% of cases.
3) Insomnia and fatigue
Prolonged stress is often linked to chronic fatigue and low levels of energy.
One study of 2483 people found that stress was strongly associated with fatigue.
Stress is also closely linked to insomnia and problems sleeping.
One study found people who experienced a high number of stressful events are much more likely to suffer from insomnia.
4) Digestive problems
Digestive disorders such as constipation or diarrhea are closely associated with stress.
A study of over 2400 children found that a stressful experience was linked to an increased risk of constipation.
Digestive disorders such as IBS have long been linked to stress.
A study of women with IBS found higher levels of daily stress was associated with higher levels of digestive distress.
5) Frequent illness
Prolonged exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol can weaken your immune system.
A weakened immune system can lead to more frequent illnesses.
One study examined patients receiving the flu vaccine. Those suffering from chronic stress were found to have a weakened immune response.
Another study of over 200 adults categorized their stress levels as either high or low stress. Over a six-month period, those in the high stress group suffered 70% more respiratory infections and nearly 61% more days of illness than the low stress group.
If you feel like you constantly have the sniffles or pick up any bug going around – you may be suffering from chronic stress.
Low immunity can also be a sign of poor diet, sedentary lifestyle and certain autoimmune disorders.
6) Reduced sex drive
Chronic stress can affect your libido.
A study of women found that those with high stress levels reported lower levels of sexual activity and satisfaction.
Another study of medical students found that stress negatively impacted on arousal, sexual desire and satisfaction.
One of the most visible signs of stress is acne.
It has been suggested that chronic stress may be a trigger for depression.
A study of over 800 women found that the onset of depression was significantly associated to both acute and chronic stress.
It has also been found that higher stress levels were linked to symptoms of depression in adolescences.
Stress and chronic pain
Stress and chronic pain are so closely linked because of your body chemicals.
Your natural response to stress is to flood your body with hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
These hormones are very effective at speeding up your reactions. They also heighten your senses.
These heightened senses can cause major problems when you live with chronic pain.
Your brain perceives the pain that you experience in your body.
Pain signals are carried to the brain via nerve fibers.
Synapses are nerve junctions between nerve fibers that heighten or dampen the pain signal.
When your body is flooded with stress hormones the pain signal is amplified at the synapse.
This can make the pain signals and therefore your experience of pain more intense.
A study of people with chronic pain found they had higher levels of cortisol in their hair. This indicated they had been under prolonged stress.
Another study found that people with chronic back pain had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than people without pain.
So does the stress cause the pain or the pain case the stress?
Well it is a bit like the chicken & the egg.
Pain causes stress and stress causes pain.
Living with chronic pain is obviously very stressful.
The good news is that the synapse can also dampen the brain signals on route to the brain.
You can influence your body’s chemicals and therefore reduce your pain.
One of the most effective ways to reduce pain signals is to reduce the amount of stress hormones in your body.
10 ways to relax and ease chronic pain
It is vitally important to reduce your stress levels when you live with chronic pain.
The good news is there are a huge variety of ways to lower your stress levels.
What your neighbor finds relaxing might frustrate the wits out of you.
The key is to find something that relaxes you – there will be something out there ☺
We list 10 proven ways to relax:
1) Go for a walk
Taking a stroll can be a great way to relax. Exercise releases your body’s happy hormones such as serotonin. Great for relaxation and relieving pain. If you are worried about further injury you may like this handy guide.
2) Listen to music
Music can be a great way to relax and lift your mood. Research has confirmed that music can synchronize the alpha-brain waves present when you are relaxed. Interestingly the most relaxing music has been found to be a mix of Celtic/Native American/Indian. Music that involves stringed instruments, drums and flutes can be relaxing for the mind. Music is very much a personal experience though. What relaxes one person may irritate you. Don’t persevere with music you find annoying – it will just cause tension and increase your stress levels.
3) Catch up with friends
Social outings can be a great way to relax. Stress and chronic pain can take their toll on your social life. You may feel a little daunted by the prospect of socializing if you haven’t been out for a while. Try not to worry, just organised something appropriate to your energy and pain levels. A quick coffee catch up and a giggle can be wonderful for your spirits and ease your pain.
4) Essential oils
Not long ago, the idea that smells could affect your mental well-being was scoffed at. But no more! There is growing evidence that essential oils have a broad range of health benefits, including relaxation and pain relief. Essential oils such as lavender, frankincense and peppermint can aid both relaxation and pain relief. For more on essential oils for pain and inflammation click here.
Meditation is not just for hippies. There is solid science behind the enormous number of benefits behind mindfulness (a form of meditation). Mindfulness involves calming the mind by focusing on the present. It is incredibly effective for relaxation and can help to lower the intensity of pain. You can access our free-guided meditation here.
Gardening can be a wonderfully rewarding and enjoyable past-time. Not only do you get in touch with nature – it is an amazing stress reliever. One study asked people to perform a stressful task. Once the task was complete, half of the group performed 30 mins of gardening. The other half read a book for 30 mins. The gardening group experienced a significantly greater decline in levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. They also reported an improvement in mood. So be it in the garden, allotment or even some pot plants – embrace your green fingers.
7) Stroke the cat/dog
Animals have an amazing ability to relax us. We bond with our 4-legged friends in a way that stimulates social boding, trust and relaxation. Research has shown that when we interact with our pets our bodies release the hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is responsible for creating the loving bond between baby and parents. Pet ownership can be a great way to relieve stress and ease your pain.
Yoga is a mind-body practice that combines controlled breathing, physical poses and relaxation. Poses focus on strength, balance and flexibility. Yoga is proven to reduce stress, improve fitness and help management of chronic conditions (such as pain, blood pressure and insomnia). Yoga is generally considered safe but it is advisable to attend classes with a trained instructor. A good instructor can show you moderated poses appropriate to any physical limitations.
9) Controlled breathing
OK so we can all breathe – what do you need to control your breath for? Not all breathing is equal. Shallow breathing can actually prolong the feelings of stress and anxiety. Controlled breathing has a number of health benefits including reducing stress hormones, lowering blood pressure and heart rate and reducing lactic acid build up in the muscles. Deep slow breathing or nose breathing can be very effective at promoting relaxation and feelings of well-being.
Swimming is a great way to relax. It combines physical exercise with controlled breathing. The repetitive nature of swimming strokes can also have a meditative effect. Swimming has been shown to improve strength and physical fitness as well as emotional well being. The water supports your body’s weight so you can exercise without additional stress on your joints.
Managing stressful situations with chronic pain
Unfortunately it is not possible to remove all stress from your life.
Many areas of life may be stressful including relationships with colleagues, loved ones and friends.
Stressful situations are a fact of life.
Learning strategies to manage stressful situations when they occur can improve your resilience and ultimately your chronic pain.
It is important to learn strategies to arm you in every element of your life. Your body, mind and social well-being.
If you would like to learn more about taking a holistic approach to heal your chronic pain – find out more here.
Stress and chronic pain go hand in hand.
Does stress cause pain or pain cause stress?
Well probably a bit of both.
Stress is a whole of body response which floods your body with stress hormones such as cortisol.
Cortisol amplifies the pain signals your brain receives. The amplified signals can make the pain you feel more intense.
Stress also has a number of other negative health effects including sleep disturbances, insomnia and lower immune function.
The good news is there are a number of proven strategies to reduce stress and relieve pain.
Popular strategies include yoga, deep breathing, walking and swimming.
Have you noticed a link between chronic pain and stress?