Coping with the Complicated Relationship Between Chronic Pain and Stress


The sense of stress can be a positive thing – helping to keep us motivated, ready to take on challenges and push ourselves to accomplish our goals,  needs and wants. But in our busy world today, most of us associate the term with the negative effects of too much stress.

When you live with Chronic Pain stress can become a serious concern, but one that, if managed well, can have a tremendous impact on our quality of life…

The body automatically responses to stress in a number of ways…

The nervous system’s  “fight or flight” response triggers the hormones adrenalin and cortisol to course through the body, heart and breathing rates increase and muscles tense up as energy resources prepare to “fight off” threats or flee from enemies- basically, the body focuses itself to address a perceived life-sustaining “emergency”. Stress is the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain.

“Experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time though, can result in a long-term drain on the body. As stress (SNS) continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.” ~ American Psychological Association

According to The Mayo Clinic the negative health consequences of stress, or too much stress, can include: increases in blood pressure, anxiety, digestive problems and trouble with concentration and/or memory.

When one lives with Chronic Pain stress becomes a serious problem in two ways-

The consistent, uncontrollable and unpredictable signal of pain sends the body into the “flight-flight” mode almost continually with additional life stressors only compounding and further aggravating the health issues that arise from too much stress.

The fear of stress and/or pain “may become maladaptive, drive avoidance behaviors and contribute to symptom chronicity”, in other words a vicious cycle of pain-leading-to-greater-stress-leading-to-increases-in-pain, etc., etc. can result. Chronic pain can become a self-reinforcing pathological state whereby changes in the body’s “stress system” may contribute to the patient’s suffering and disability. ~Ruhr University, Germany.

What to Do

There are a number of methods to deal with stress, those in Chronic Pain certainly don’t have a corner on that market, but there are some techniques that have been specifically designed to address the special needs of those living with the condition.

  1. A landmark Research Study by Jon-Kabat Zinn on Mindfulness Meditation or Awareness Meditationhas been utilized to great effect. Mindfulness meditation is differentiated from Transcendental Meditation (with its strict attention to a single point, object, mantra or the breathe) and is rooted in Theravada Buddhism. For Mindfulness Meditation to help us deal with our response to stress, break the pain-stress cycle and generally manage our pain more effectively we need to understand it as a practice that takes time and dedication but which has been shown to result in a vastly improved ability to let go of, maintain a “detached attachment stance” to, our pain- both in respect to the body’s sensation of and our “mind’s interpretations and judgments of” pain (including the role that stress and its affects play).

2. Exercise– We have to be weary of our inclination to lessen the amount of and/or stop getting exercise, which is an important stress reducer, for fear of pain, pain flairs and/or aggravating under-lying conditions or injury. “Eventually, muscle atrophy due to disuse of the body, can promote chronic, stress-related musculoskeletal conditions…. generally (it leads to) a worse recovery than individuals who maintain a certain level of moderate, physician-supervised activity.” ~ American Psychological Association (APA).

3. General stress reducing techniques- can all be worth a try and include such things as the aforementioned exercise and deep-breathing techniques (even taking a few deep breaths every so often can have a huge impact on countering the body’s stress-induced fight-flight state), warm baths and massage as well as the use of saunas or steam-rooms, and finally, the use of the herbs Lavender, Camomile and Valerian. Having a lavender-scented bath with a cup of Camomile tea is a delicious, self-nurturing treat that sounds like a wonderful “cure”, and who knows, it  just might make a world of difference.

4. And finally, the APA has a quick, easy to read brochure to address stress and Chronic Pain that includes such helpful pain management tools as utilizing the power of distraction, knowing and respecting one’s limits and importantly, not losing hope.


Author: ChronicPainDailyReflections

I manage a web-site, Chronic Pain Daily, created for and in support of those living in chronic pain. The site helps with the day-to-day spiritual, mental, emotional and physical needs of those with constant pain, whatever its source.

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