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Stress Drives Pain and Pain Drives Stress – So How Do You Break the Cycle?

Stress and pain are two of the most common experiences that people face in their daily lives. It’s rare (read: almost impossible) for individuals to go through a day without feeling stressed or experiencing some sort of pain. While it’s starting to become more accepted that there is a relationship between stress and pain, it’s still not commonly understood.

The relationship between stress and pain is bidirectional. This means that stress can increase pain and pain can increase stress. Unfortunately, this means it’s fairly easy to spiral downwards without something stopping (or slowing) the process. It’s similar to how a snowball picks up momentum as it rolls downhill. What can start out as a small problem has the potential to turn into a large problem (chronic pain), if things aren’t properly addressed on the front end.

Defining Stress and Pain

Before we talk about how stress and pain are interrelated, we need to define both of these concepts so we’re on the same page. Pain, or what is more properly called the experience of pain, is poorly understood in our society (which is one of the reasons there is so much of it)!

If you do an internet search on the definition of pain, you’ll find physical discomfort or suffering caused by an injury. While this may be a widely accepted definition of pain, experts in pain science define pain as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential damage or described in terms of such. In plain english, this means pain is a physical or emotional experience that is perceived as uncomfortable.

For stress, the interwebs define it as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Which, if we apply to our lives as they are, could be a lot of different situations! As Americans, we often lead very stressful lives. Or, we at least perceive that we have stressful lives.

Pain is a Form of Stress

So, to summarize, we’ve defined pain as an uncomfortable experience and stress as worry. When people are uncomfortable, they often experience anxiety (worry). Essentially, they are experiencing stress because of their discomfort.

This logic typically isn’t too hard for people to follow. When you have more pain, you experience more stress as a result of that pain. The part that gets tricky for people to understand is how stress can increase the experience of pain.

Please note that I say “experience” because pain truly is an experience. Pain is not simply a if I am subjected to an uncomfortable stimulus, I will have pain. There is a LOT more to pain science than a “If A, then B” approach. We delve more deeply into the science surrounding pain in this blog post. So, for this blog post, we will be operating under the fact that pain is an experience, not a chemical or stimulus.


So Stress Causes Pain, You Say?

Yes, stress can increase pain. And, we see it all the time. It’s not uncommon for a client to be improving, experiencing less pain, and doing more of what they love, but then something happens and things go backwards. When we dive into what happened, oftentimes stress levels spiked right before their discomfort went up.

We’ve seen individuals have more pain associated with their injury after losing a loved one, failing a test, being sexually assaulted, having a poor performance review at work, watching their children make decisions they disagree with, and many more less-than-ideal situations. Increased pain as a result of life stress is common. But, we don’t expect you to just take our word for it, let’s dive into the science of why this happens.

The Science (Briefly) Behind Why Stress Can Increase Pain

When you are stressed, your body secretes stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones change how your body functions. Your resting heart rate rises, your blood pressure elevates, and your muscle tension increases.

In short, your body is preparing to fight or flight. However, what your body needs to do is rest and recover in order for an injury to heal. This is the exact opposite of what stress does to our bodies.

Muscle Tension

Increased muscle tension from stress pulls on injured structures. Injured structures can’t heal when there is too much tension placed on them, so they try to signal to the brain to calm down. But, the way they signal to the brain that things need to calm down is by sending more signals to the brain that something isn’t right. These increased signals result in, you guessed it, increased pain.

Sleep Plays a Role

When you’re stressed, your sleep suffers. It might be difficult to relax your body or you may struggle with calming down (or stopping) the thoughts that run through your brain. Unfortunately, when your sleep suffers, your recovery stalls.

While you’re asleep, your body releases human growth hormone, which helps tissues recover and rebuild. If you’re not sleeping enough or if you’re not sleeping well (getting deep sleep, which is the physically restorative part of sleep), your body won’t be able to heal like it needs to. To get some tips on how to improve the quality of your sleep, check out our blog post all about sleep!

Brain Circuits

One final way that stress can increase pain is through the neural circuits in our brains. The circuits that control pain and stress overlap. This means the brain cells (neurons) that create the experience of pain are a lot of the same neurons that fire when we are stressed.

Unfortunately, circuits that fire together wire together. This means the more often pain causes you stress, the more stress will cause your brain to create the sensation of pain. Put differently, the more often pain neurons fire at the same time as stress neurons, the more often stress neurons will recruit pain neurons to fire along with them.

Stressed Humans in Pain

If the last paragraph just blew your mind, you aren’t alone. A lot of individuals we work with are surprised to learn just how much stress can drive pain. It often doesn’t click for them until something stressful happens, their pain goes up, and they come into our office wondering why they are no longer getting better (or getting worse!). Once we discuss what you spent the last five minutes reading, they get it. Stress increases pain and pain increases stress.

But, How Do We Stop the Cycle?

This is the real – and difficult – question. While successful strategies can vary from person to person, here’s a few ideas that we’ve seen be helpful for clients.

  • Spend 15 minutes per day doing something for yourself that you enjoy and is unproductive
  • Partake in a form of exercise (that doesn’t worsen your injury) for 30 minutes at least 3x/week
  • See a mental health counselor to talk things through
  • Spend time outside – a walk, bike ride, or simply sitting on a bench in a park
  • Take a weekly yoga class
  • Confide about what you’re struggling with in a partner or friend
  • Take a warm bath and relax (without your phone)
  • Mediation, breathwork, and prayer
  • Take a drive on backroads and listen to music
  • Brain dump your thoughts into a journal for 10 minutes each night before going to bed

You Can Break the Stress and Pain Cycle

Stress and pain can be bidirectional and they do have the capability to turn into incredibly difficult situations, but they don’t have to. It is possible to break the cycle, decrease your stress, and eliminate your pain.

If you’re struggling with either of these – stress or pain – and want someone to help you navigate your way out, reach out. We help individuals decrease pain and stress on a daily basis and we’d love to work with you as well.

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