It’s a story as common as a penny for those with chronic pain issues. The day may be going ok, but an argument sparks up, or the traffic is terrible, your boss treats you poorly again….
…it can even be as simple as a run of clumsy moments which leave you cleaning up messes and reaching for the bandaids…..
…but however it arises, as our stress levels increase, the pain kicks in.
I know the pattern in my own body too well.
Usually, it’s because a series of things go wrong in small but frustrating ways, till my timetable is shot to pieces and everything is pressured.
The pain starts small, in my shoulder, then moves up my now quite tense neck, over the top of my head, where it magically spreads in several directions, most specifically down the right side of my face and into my belly, where nausea ensues.
Yep, that’s the winding road of my migraines.
And while I’m getting extremely good at recognising that twinge in my shoulder before it spreads, and doing what I can to avoid it going any further, I don’t always make the right choices for my body at that moment.
And before long, I’m reaching for pain killers and heading for bed.
This acute connection I’ve seen between my pain and the stress I experience is a major motivator in the work I do with people who are living with chronic pain. I’ve learned that I can stop a migraine in its tracks if I make stress-reducing choices at the first sign of the pain. (Better yet if I can do it before that first twinge!)
Maybe you’ve experienced this too. Do you find yourself avoiding stress because it causes a flare up?
Many mainstream pain clinics will teach a few basic techniques for stress reduction which can greatly aide you to reduce the physical symptoms of stress and, in turn, reduce the pain flare up.
But what about the more chronic pain, pain that’s just there, most or all of the time? Is that stress related too?
The nature of chronic stress
We often think of stress as the types of events or moments I’ve described above – we think they’re bad days, days when unusual events happen that trigger us to frustration, worry or pressure. But stress can also be chronic in nature.
When we live with a job that is always high pressure, or a partner who is always negative toward us, or kids whose behaviour is always worrisome, or in an environment that is never restful, these types of situations can trigger our internal stress response at a low level, perpetually. And we get so used to it we don’t even notice it.
The stress response in the body exists to keep us safe, protecting us by flooding our system with chemicals and hormones that allow us to hide (the freeze response), defend ourselves (the fight response) or run from danger (the flight response). These hormones and chemicals also stop bodily functions like digestion, repair and reproduction, and instead they allow the body to channel all its energy into muscles (used to freeze, fight or run) or hyper-awareness (so we can detect danger more acutely), or increasing our heart rate (to allow faster blood flow for high energy activity), among other things.
When we are triggered into the stress response from things that are chronic in our lives, like jobs, relationships and environment, the body is living in this state of readiness to fight, flight or freeze. And it is not built to do that.
It’s easy to see that, over time, with a repair system that’s chronically shut down, the body will start to get sick and cease to function well. I believe this leads to chronic and degenerative problems like fibromyalgia, arthritis, autoimmune issues, migraines, chronic fatigue etc.
Similarly, the body with a digestive system that’s chronically shut down will cease to cope well with food, developing sensitivities, IBS and other digestive problems.
And the body chronically experiencing the increased energy to muscles will experience cramping and freezing.
The chronic hyper-awareness will affect sleep which, in turn, affects healing and repair, and mood. It can also induce anxiety issues.
The chronically raised heart beat causes hypertension, anxiety and other heart-related issues.
And from that combination of problems, the body can get on a degenerative roll, becoming more susceptible to any kind of illness or ailment.
Life events that trigger chronic emotional stress patterns
Emotional stress, which form part of our coping mechanisms during times of emotional hurt or trauma, when the stress response is triggered, can also lead to the stress response getting caught in a permanent “on” cycle, in a low level, chronic way.
When we experience an emotionally difficult event, often we can be so emotionally traumatised we begin to develop unconscious (mostly) fears around that event. For instance, if a child grows up in a home where Dad gets drunk and comes home at night, getting violent from time to time, that child may develop a chronically triggered stress response, because she never really knows when the danger will reappear. As she grows up, this constant state of alert becomes so ingrained she may not even realise she’s living in a stressful state. Long after she’s left the home and doesn’t see Dad anymore, she may carry an unconscious fear at night because that little girl knew that nights could be dangerous.
Emotionally difficult events of all types, in adulthood as well as childhood, can create these constant, low level stress states. In modern life, we’re fed a diet of fear, hearing scary stories on the news each day, watching “true crime” tv shows and high tension thriller movies. It’s no surprise that all of this combined can leave our poor animal brains in a constantly stressed state.
And that’s when the body starts to break down and pain starts to develop.
Making the connection between your chronic pain and stress
I’ve developed a simple Life Pain Calendar, which you can download here.
This calendar is designed to help you map the stressful times in your life, stressful events and periods, and then map the onset of chronic issues. While it can take some time for stress to result in illness, the Life Pain Calendar can help you see patterns, flares and stories to your pain.
Even where you can’t see a direct link between stressful events/periods and the onset of your pain or illness, use the Calendar to see your life as a whole story – what has happened to you and how might it be still affecting you today.
Where stressful events or periods arose, go deeper into how you’ve processed and coped with the emotions around that experience. Be open to the possibility that where you’ve not processed emotions in a healthy way, you may be carrying physical burdens that create pain.
In Part 2 of this blog series, I’ll be discussing some tools you can use when a stress flare begins, with the hope avoiding a fully fledged flare. Read it here.