Throughout the month of February, I’ve been writing about chronic pain. Today I’m going to give you the skinny on how bad stress affects chronic pain.
Let’s start with what stress is. We all have stress. If you are a living, breathing, human being you have some degree of stress in your life. Some stress is good. Maybe it’s even exciting stress, such as when you are buying a new home, starting a new job that you wanted, or planning a party. We call this eustress. But then there is the bad stress that we usually think about. The bad stress is called distress and happens when our ability to cope with a situation is floundering and we begin to feel overwhelmed. Our resources for coping are maxed out! Distress might be when we have chronic health problems that we can’t find answers to, when we have significant financial debts, when your car breaks down all the time, constantly fighting with your family, or when you are constantly under the gun at work.
Stress produces normal bodily responses that are usually helpful for us: increased heart rate, faster breathing, tensing muscles, increased alertness, etc… However, when we are experiencing the bad stress (or distress) a lot, then these normal bodily reactions go into overdrive and start causing problems in our body. One way to think about this is if you drove your car at its max speed for hours on end. After a while your car probably wouldn’t be running right and you’d eventually run out of gas. The same thing happens to our body, essentially.
For the person who doesn’t have chronic pain, dealing with constant stress is going to take a toll on your body (we’ll talk about this in the coming months), but for the person with chronic pain stress is a major player in increasing pain. Here’s some things you might not have know about stress and pain:
Pain leads to stress. Having a major health condition, such as chronic pain, limits your ability and enjoyment of life. You attend frequent medical appointments, have multiple medications to take with multiple side effects, and might be always on the lookout for answers, healing, or support. Just the act of constantly searching can be stressful. You don’t sleep well, may not have good support, and may have financial problems due to having to work less. Almost every aspect of your life is impacted and unless you’ve developed good coping skills that you practice regularly then your chronic pain is a major source of stress for you.
Stress leads to pain. Stress is related to how you believe you cope with things. If you believe you aren’t coping well then you might fall into depression, anxiety, isolation, poor sleep…all things that we know of that open the pain gate (see my previous blog http://legacycounselingservice.com/how-a-psychologist-views-chronic-pain/) and increase a person’s experience of pain. Then there is the straight physiological aspects of stress…. increases in hormones, such as cortisol, that lead to chronic inflammation which can lead to chronic pain. All in all, bad stress is just not a good thing.
So what do you do? Try to work on incorporating 3 or 4 practices into your daily life to help you manage stress. Some things to consider are exercising regularly, playing with your kids or doing other fun activities, getting adequate sleep, talking with supportive friends or family, praying, doing deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, keeping your thoughts realistic and focusing on the positive things in life.
If you find that you are struggling with chronic stress, chronic pain, or both, give me a call and we can talk about whether counseling would be helpful for you. You can reach me at 539-777-1129 or via secure email at Dr.Leedy@legacycounselingservice.com