Studies have shown that stress and emotional issues can result in chronic pain. How can over-stressed people, suffering from chronic pain, lower their stress levels and their pain?
“There is a big correlation between stress and chronic pain,” says Dr. Francine Lederer, a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles who is an expert on health issues, stress, and mood disorders. “A number of my patients who suffer from health related issues such as cancer, back pain, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia have emotional stress that they have been carrying years before their health diagnoses.”
“Pain can worsen stress which can in turn elevate pain levels,” says Dr. Devin B. Peck, Board Certified by the American Board of Anesthesiology in Pain Medicine and Anesthesiology, Austin Pain Associates. “Examples of this include musculoskeletal back and neck pain, headache, and stomach pain. High levels of stress can worsen existing muscle spasticity. Spasticity can lead to back or neck pain, or even certain types of headache. High levels of stress have been linked to a certain type of ulcer (Curling’s Ulcer) which can cause severe epigastric pain.”
“High levels of stress can cause ‘psychosomatic’ symptoms including physical pain,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist. “Stress causes release of chemicals in our bodies that can result in elevated blood pressure, rapid heartbeat/breathing and muscle contractions (tightening). Prolonged stress can result in physical pain when your muscles tighten in response to chemical triggers for a long time.”
“Some of the most important interventions are to help each individual understand how to best cope with their stress level,” says Dr. Lederer. “Finding good coping mechanisms including meditation, yoga, exercise, healthy diet, or talk therapy are vital. The key is to be consistent in applying the strategies that work.”
“The other biggest component to lowers stress and pain levels is to have a healthy support system,” says Dr. Lederer. “People need people to survive. Having supportive family members and friends is imperative to healthy living. Sometimes support groups can be especially effective. All people need a sense of purpose in order to lead productive healthy lives.”
What are the top tips and techniques to lower stress and reduce or eliminate pain? “Practice mindfulness: take some time each day to focus on something simple and internal, such as breathing or pulse,” says Dr. Peck. “Optimize sleep as poor sleep hygiene affects both one’s emotional and physical well-being. Exercise as a a regular program of low-impact aerobic exercise is essential to maintaining a healthy body and mind. Targeting strengthening of particular muscle groups, under the direction of a doctor or physical therapist, can both improve painful symptoms and prevent additional injuries. Chemicals produced by the brain during exercise have been linked to emotional wellness and stress reduction.”
“Use your mind and body to create an awareness of what you’re experiencing, i.e., be mindful,” says Dr. Lederer. “Do some deep breathing exercises” advises Dr. Hafeez. “Engage in positive imagery exercises which help to calm the senses by imagining a safe and relaxing place.”
“Make sure to incorporate a self-soothing activity for yourself that you enjoy consistently throughout your week (e.g. painting, reading, meditation, yoga),” says Dr. Lederer. “Surround yourself with a support system and spend time with the people you love and cherish.”
“Consider daily exercise (even if it’s a 15 minute walk around your neighborhood) and a healthy diet,” says Dr. Lederer. “Physical exercise produces feel-good chemicals including adrenaline and epinephrine,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Yoga helps relax body and mind and communication – simply talking about problems can help alleviate stress.”
Do something you love: whether it’s spending time with family and friends, participating in sports or another hobby, or simply relaxing, reading, or listening to music.
“Set aside ‘me time,” advises Dr. Peck. “Even a few minutes a day, designate time in which you put no expectations on yourself to complete tasks or fulfill obligations. It will make you that much more productive the rest of the day if you allow yourself to decompress and reduce stress levels which can be distracting.”
If you feel stress “coming on,” what can you do? “I think people often times report feeling stressed when they are at a level 10 as opposed to recognizing early signs (e.g. mood change, fatigue, short with others, beginnings of physical pain, etc.),” says Dr. Lederer. “The best way to beat stress and reduce physical pain is to catch it sooner. It’s important to create an awareness of what’s happening internally to your mind and body.”
“If you feel stress coming on, take a walk and take yourself out of the situation,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Make a list of things to do and order the items by priority. Give yourself time to complete each task by breaking them down into component parts or by chunking them so that they are more manageable.”
“I do believe that people that have histories of some type of trauma (otherwise known as PTSD) may be more prone to stress because whenever they feel triggered by a past situation their body has to continually fight the threat,” says Dr. Lederer. “I also think that people who are extremely negative are also prone to stress related pain. They may not know how to cope with stress or may believe that the stress can’t be alleviated.”