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The Stress-Pain Connection

It's easy to get stressed out when the pressures of work, family, and everyday life are weighing on you. These stresses can have not only an emotional impact, they can cause physical tension and pain as well.


Stress and pain are often closely linked. Each one can have an impact on the other, creating a vicious cycle that sets the stage for chronic pain and chronic stress. So, part of getting pain relief is learning how to break the cycle.



The Physical Effects of Stress


Stress itself is a normal part of life; you become stressed when you face hard situations in your lives or when you have a lot to deal with. It’s the way our brains make us aware that there’s something in our environment that's overwhelming and subsequently gets us ready to take action.


Some amount of stress is helpful. Dr. Abdallah, a PTSD researcher and professor at Yale says “Pain and stress are both adaptive in protecting the organism”. However, he explains that when these processes become ongoing, then they turn maladaptive. When an environmental stressor is too large, or ongoing, the body get's stuck in 'fight or flight' mode. This overworks the body and can cause problems to 30 different organ systems!


Lots of studies support the conclusion that what happens in the brain — depression, anxiety, being stressed out — increases pain. "At the same time, if you have more pain, you may be more stressed", says Jennifer Schneider, MD, PhD, a chronic-pain specialist and author of the book Living With Chronic Pain. Thus begins the pain-stress cycle.


Breaking the Connection


Both pain relief and stress relief begins with the root cause -- a hypervigilant nervous system. Overtime, the 'fight or flight' alarm becomes more sensitive to environmental triggers and becomes increasingly protective. What this means is; more pain, more stress and anxiety, less sleep, and more. “When you have pain for more than 6 months, it puts you on high alert,” explained Dr. Aria. “Your pain is no longer an issue with your back or your knee — it becomes a nervous system problem.”


Studies show that more you calm the nervous system sensitivity, the more pain relief. Simultaneously, a calmer nervous system allows the body to respond better to difficult environmental triggers.


This explains why physically based interventions often don't work. "Patients need to manage their stress to be in the best psychological state to benefit from other therapies," says Carmen Green, MD, associate professor of anesthesiology and director of pain medicine research at the University of Michigan Health System.


What are some ways to calm the nervous system?

  1. Education. Learning helps you feel more confident in knowing what's happening with the body. This confidence actually starts to change the brain and the way we perceive our symptoms.

  2. Movement. Go for a short walk or do a short exercise. Mobilizing the nervous system dials it down.

  3. Breathing. The next time you can't sleep or find yourself in pain, try the 4-7-8 technique. Do this for 3-5 cycles.






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Modern research shows that psychological and emotional elements can play a major role in chronic pain. These non-physical components can help the brain “learn” to be in pain. By training the brain, we can re-wire the body’s neural circuitry to dial down pain sensations and bring relief.



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