What’s the impact of stress on pain levels?

Stress is a complex, natural response to a perceived dangerous threat. When we feel stress, our bodies release extra adrenaline and cortisol, giving us the temporary ability to move faster, to think more quickly, and to react instinctively. When the threat goes away, our bodies return to a neutral state. This response is healthy and helpful. Chronic stress, on the other hand, can lead to huge changes in the body, including higher levels of pain. Here’s what you should know about the impact of stress.

What is stress?

Cortisol is an important hormone in our bodies; it helps control immune function, is an important part of our body’s inflammatory response, and helps control blood sugar. Cortisol levels are normally highest during the day, with a regular drop at night. When we are under chronic stress, however, that drop does not occur. Our bodies continue to pump out cortisol.

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The effects of this sustained level of cortisol are astonishing:

  • Increased body fat in the stomach, which is associated with higher cholesterol and heart problems
  • Lowered bone density
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Decreased immune function and poor response to inflammation
  • Imbalanced blood sugar
  • Poor cognitive function

Increased cortisol production has also been linked to difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and depression. It has also been linked to increased pain levels.

Impact of stress on pain levels 

At the end of a long, stressful day, we feel it in our bodies. Our necks ache, maybe our lower back hurts. This could be a direct result of holding our muscles tense for a long period of time and usually goes away once we are able to relax or once the stressful event has ended. But did you know that that stress can impact pain levels for chronic pain sufferers?

Stress makes chronic pain more intense for longer periods of time, continuing long after the stressful event has ended.

Chronic pain is long-term pain that requires management and monitoring. Acute pain is pain (often from an injury or muscle strain) that lasts for three months or more. Chronic pain, on the other hand, lasts for more than three months and is difficult to treat. Stress can exacerbate the symptoms of chronic pain throughout the body.

Some studies have shown that a continued release of cortisol can result in higher vulnerability to chronic pain, even if the pain was acute to begin with. This means that a person who has an acute pain episode, as from an injury, is more susceptible to longer healing times and/or chronic pain from that injury.

Other symptoms of stress that affect pain patients 

People with chronic stress may also have:

  • A depressed immune system
  • Higher incidence of headaches
  • Fewer coping skills as far as pain management goes
  • Emotional distress such as anxiety and depression

All of these symptoms of stress impact the body’s ability to deal with the symptoms of chronic pain. For example, anxious people tend to hold their breath. This limits the amount of oxygen available to the muscles of the body, causing them to contract. If the contraction is anywhere that the pain is centered, the sensation intensifies, causing more anxiety, more pain, and so on.

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The combination of stress and chronic pain generates a cycle where both sensations increase.

Mental health challenges with chronic stress 

What happens when stress becomes a way of life? What impact does chronic stress have on the mind? Chronic stress can manifest itself in different ways and can be caused by many different things. A stressful job, worries about finances, chronic illness, death of a loved one, or trouble at home: these are just a few of the factors that can lead to chronic stress.

Those who are suffering from chronic stress may respond differently than normal. They may be agitated and angry, with a quick temper: the “fight” aspect of a reaction to stress. Normally small problems, such as slow traffic or a loud child, may cause them to overreact.

This hair-trigger angry response can cause serious health issues. There is a connection between anger and stress and increased risk of heart attack and stroke, even hours after the angry outburst. After an angry outburst, people may be five times more likely to have a heart attack and three times more likely to have a stroke as long as three hours afterwards. This result held true even if the anger was not expressed, and the more angry episodes, the higher the risk.

Instead of being agitated and angry, some people respond to chronic stress by shutting down, becoming nervous or anxious, or overindulging in food, drink, or drugs. These responses are more of the “flight” aspect of stress. The chronically stressed person pulls away from whatever the stress is and becomes withdrawn.  In the face of chronic stress, others might freeze up, unable to make a decision or move in any direction. The person responding in this manner might seem calm, but underneath remains very anxious and agitated.

Dealing with chronic stress

The effects of long-term stress on the healthy body are well-documented, so it stands to reason that one of the effects of stress on a person suffering from chronic pain is more pain.

Beyond this, chronic stress can cause serious, long-term health issues that can only be dealt with successfully once the underlying cause of the stress is examined and addressed.

The best way to counteract this is to reduce stress levels as much as possible. Eliminating stress or developing effective coping strategies result in positive changes to a person’s health and well-being.

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