Chronic pain and stress are often intertwined. When you experience persistent discomfort, it’s natural to feel stressed about it. Unfortunately, this stress often exacerbates the pain, resulting in a frustrating cycle that can leave you feeling worse both physically and mentally.
Fortunately, there are ways to break the stress/pain cycle. Here’s what you should know about the relationship between the two.
How Does Stress Affect the Body?
According to the American Psychological Association, stress affects every system of the body, including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems. One of the most pronounced ways it can cause pain is through the tension it triggers in the body. Tensing of the muscles is the body’s natural response to stressors— a protective measure to guard against injury and pain. Under persistent stress, however, this continual muscle tension can lead to issues like tension headaches and musculoskeletal pain.
Stress also impacts the body on a chemical level. The body releases stress hormones that can have a cumulative, damaging effect over the long term. Moreover, research shows that persistent stress creates an altered chemical response that can actually intensify pain. For people with preexisting chronic pain, such as joint pain from arthritis, the cycle may feel impossible to break.
How to Cope With Stress to Control Pain?
It would be easy to fix stress-related pain if stress could simply be avoided altogether. Unfortunately, stressors are often a part of everyday life. While we may not be able to steer clear of them entirely, we can change the way we respond to them.
Finding healthy stress outlets is an important step to managing both your mental health and your chronic pain. While each person will have their own preferred stress management technique, here are a few options to try:
- Get some exercise. It may seem counterintuitive to exercise when you’re in pain, but even a brief walk could provide benefits. For instance, walks can help reduce joint stiffness in people with arthritis while also delivering a mood boost.
- Focus on sleep hygiene. If your mind is racing at night due to stress, your body isn’t getting the sleep it needs to repair itself. Promote restful sleep by avoiding electronics at least 30 minutes before bed, as the blue light from devices can disrupt your body’s circadian rhythms.
- Manage your responsibilities. Chronic stress can come from taking on too much. While not all stressors are avoidable, there may be ways to lighten your workload and feel less overwhelmed. Find out if you can delegate tasks at work or home, and consider turning down social activities if you don’t have the bandwidth for them.
- Connect with loved ones. Spending time with friends has been shown to release the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which can provide a mood boost and help you beat stress.
- Discover an alternate stress outlet. For some people, going for a drive while listening to music might be an effective way to decompress. For others, quiet activities like yoga, journaling, or meditation may help. Experiment with different methods to find which works for you.
If you’re facing stress that could be causing or contributing to your pain, talk to your United Physician Group provider. Our compassionate pain management specialists are here to help find relief from all aspects of pain, including the mental toll it can take. Connect with us online or by calling (833) 523-0906.