Stress & Chronic Pain - Making the Connection


The day was going ok.

But then…
…an argument sparks up
…the traffic is terrible
…your boss dismisses you in front of others again
... a clumsy run of moments which leave you cleaning up messes and reaching for bandaids.....

And then your stress levels increase and the pain kicks in.

I know this pattern in my own body, too well.

A series of small but frustrating things go wrong till my timetable is shot to pieces and everything is pressured.

The pain also starts small, behind my shoulder blade – so sneaky small I hadn’t even noticed it.

Then my shoulder starts to feel stiff. Bad sign.

Then it moves up my neck,
over the top of my head,
it maniacally spreads in several directions,
most specifically down the right side of my face, behind my eye,
into my teeth (of all things!)
and eventually 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,

doing what I can to avoid it going any further,

I don't always make the right choices for my body at those moments when I becoming conscious of the pain.

Before I know it, I'm reaching for pain killers and heading for bed.

This acute connection I've seen between the stress I experience and my pain 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? Or are you more the person who ignores, cuts off from her body and pushes through, because she wants to achieve a goal, finish a task or not look weak?

Many mainstream pain clinics will teach a few basic techniques for stress reduction which can greatly aide you in reducing 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 - bad days, moments when unusual events happen that trigger us to frustration, worry or pressure.

But stress can also be chronic.

When we live with a job that is always pressured,
or a partner who is always negative toward us,
or kids whose behaviour is always worrisome,
or in an environment that is never restful,
or negative self talk that just doen’t let up,

it triggers 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 or our thinking, the body lives chronically in this state of fight, flight or freeze.

It is not built to do that.

Over time, with our repair system chronically shut down, the body will start to get sick and cease to function well.

The immune system can’t do its job either, leaving us susceptible to picking up more viruses and taking longer to fight them.

There are also a swathe of adrenal fatigue issues, autoimmune issues and much more that can result from chronically turning off your repair & digestive systems.

It’s my firm believe this is a major contributor to chronic and degenerative problems like fibromyalgia, arthritis, thyroid problems, migraines, chronic fatigue and many more illnesses.

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, can also lead to our stress response getting caught permanently "on", perhaps only in a low level, chronic way. But we’re still in our fight, flight or freeze state all the time.

Further, an emotionally difficult event can leave us with an unconscious (mostly) chronic fear. And that fear perpetuates the triggering of the stress response.

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 alertness becomes so ingrained she may not even realise it’s still affecting her – the symptoms are so normal to her. Long after she's left the home she may carry an unconscious fear at night because her fear response learned that nights could be dangerous.

Chronic poor level sleep can lead to all manner of mood and physical issues, because the body and brain need sleep to rest and repair. She may end up on a variety of drugs to help anxiety, sleeplessness, pain and whatever specific physical ailments her body has developed – but the root cause, or catalyst that started the cascade of health issues, was stress.

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, news stories fuelling fear, high tension thriller movies or dramas in which people are cruel. Highly time-pressured days, concerns about money and economy. It's no surprise that all of this combined can leave us in a chronically 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 still be 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 those emotions in physical ways that eventually create pain.

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