Stress and pain have a complicated, often frustrating, relationship. Stress frequently causes pain or aggravates existing discomfort. Meanwhile, living with pain results in stress, exacerbating the cycle.
The intertwined relationship between stress and pain is a classic example of how profoundly the mind affects the body.
Mental distress leads to physical changes. People under stress tend to clench their jaws, tighten the back muscles, or hold tension in the shoulders. Over time, this unabated constriction can lead to pain. Stress may also lead to acute episodes of pain, such as headaches, that unmanaged stress could turn into routine occurrences.
Chronic stress not only causes tension, it destroys the body’s ability to regulate its inflammatory response, typically used to fight infections and viruses, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. Left unchecked, runaway inflammation can result in painful disorders ranging from arthritis to fibromyalgia.
Meanwhile, physical discomfort leads to mental anguish. A previously vibrant, healthy person who develops pain experiences a significant setback in quality of life. Left unable to exercise or enjoy the present moment, pain diminishes a person’s joy. The uncontrollable situation leads to even more stress. Constant suffering stresses the body, cementing the troublesome, unhealthy relationship between stress and pain. But there are solutions.
People suffering from pain or stress take note of mounting evidence: the simple activities of yoga and meditation can reduce pain and anxiety.
A study from York University found women with fibromyalgia who practiced hatha yoga for 75 minutes, twice a week experienced a decrease in activity of the sympathetic nervous system, in turn lowering heart rate and promoting deeper breathing. Study participants reported feeling more in control of their situations and felt reduced pain.
Similarly, a 2013 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found mindfulness meditation helped people with disorders related to chronic inflammation, such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis, find relief. Mindfulness meditation involves staying focused on the breath, mind, and sensations that arise in the body. The practice can be completed while seated, practicing yoga, or walking.
Short on time or bored by your breath? Take a walk outside. Spending time in nature, amidst the trees and warm sunlight, is also proven to reduce stress and anxiety.
Have you tried to manage stress to reduce your pain?
Image by Gunar Grummt via Flickr