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The Connection Between Stress and Chronic Pain

Pain is the number 1 reason for doctor visits in the U.S. More than 100 million Americans are reported to suffer from chronic pain. This is more than a combination of all people with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and stroke. There is a difference between acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain happens immediately and lasts for a short time. Examples include stubbing your toe, a car accident, or a headache. Acute pain is typically accompanied by an accident or injury. Chronic pain can be intermittent or persistent but will last longer than three months. Chronic pain can accompany a diagnosis including but not limited to Fibromyalgia, TMJ, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Arthritis, Rheumatoid, or Osteo, can also create pain throughout the body. Did you know that there is a connection between stress and chronic pain? Throughout this article, we will discuss the connection and what you can do to lessen your chronic pain.

The autonomic nervous system is composed of 2 phases, the sympathetic & parasympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic nervous system is your "rest and digest" phase. During this phase, our body heals and rebuilds. Our digestive process begins and works appropriately during this phase. This process happens during your sleep or during moments in life when you are relaxed. The sympathetic nervous system is also called the "fight or flight" nervous system. This system takes control when you are running away from a tiger. Unfortunately, the body does not know the difference between running away from a tiger and meeting a deadline at work. Stress is stress to the body. When your sympathetic nervous system is in drive, your heart rate elevates, your pupils dilate, and non-essential body systems shut down (including your digestive system & your immune system). The brain shuts down the small tasks to focus on the large task: like running away from the tiger. This is why making significant decisions when you are stressed is not advisable. Another side effect of the sympathetic nervous system is chronic muscle tension or protective muscle tension.

Let's first define stress. Stress is any change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain. This could be anything from a wedding or work deadline to an accident or divorce. Stress can also come in the form of a perception of how we perceive life or a situation. The body does not know the difference between a snake in the grass or our misinterpretation of a rope in the grass; it only perceives a threat.

So how does stress link to chronic pain? The sympathetic nervous system causes subconscious protective muscle-holding patterns. When we are under constant stress, perceived or actual, the body holds on to chronic muscle tension. Over long durations of time, your muscles become fatigued and inefficient. This can lead to chronic neck pain or back pain. Chronic stress also leads to chronic cortisol release in the blood stream. Long-term, this spikes your blood sugar, causing chronic inflammation, which weakens your immune system. The more stressed you are, the more interrupted your sleeping pattern, which delays the healing process of the body, stimulates more inflammation and makes us less tolerable to pain. This begins the vicious pain cycle.

Vicious Pain Cycle

Chronic stress --> subconscious muscle guarding --> muscle pain --> trigger points --> nerve impingement and shortened muscles --> restrictive movements --> increased pain --> decreased sleep --> inability to cope with pain --> more stress.

What can you do to improve your stress and decrease your pain?

Exercise: Believe it or not, movement is the best medicine for chronic pain. You can skip an intense exercise program. You can start with an exercise program to increase your mobility and strength. Beginners Yoga, Tai chi, or just walking outside are great ways to start an exercise program. Too much intensity, in the beginning, can lead to increased cortisol and increased risk of injury.

Adopt a Mindfulness Mindset: Mindfulness can include perspective change, meditation, and a gratitude practice. All things that improve your everyday stress reduction. By changing your perspective, you change your body's reaction to stress. You can respond to life with gratitude instead of reacting to life with chronic cortisol release and muscle tension. For meditation, it can be done in as little as 2 minutes. Just close your eyes and focus on your breath for 2 minutes. Do you need some help? There are amazing apps with daily meditations. You can also find meditations on YouTube. Just find a nice quiet place, free from distraction, and hit play! Studies show it takes at least eight weeks of daily mindfulness practice to reap the rewards, so hang in there!

Talk to Someone: Finding a good friend, support group, or professional to talk to can be life-altering. Having someone to relate to can make this world not feel so lonely. It is important to confide in someone trustworthy and supportive. There are many support groups and professionals that would be a great start. Make sure you connect with the person. It's ok to shop around!

Improve your Quality of Sleep: Sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our health and our stress levels. When we are lacking sleep, we can not tolerate pain and our body does not have the opportunity to heal properly. There are many things you can do to improve your sleep. A regularly scheduled bedtime is a great start. Getting morning sunlight, dropping the temperature of your room, and turning off your devices an hour before bed can improve your sleep. Start a bedtime routine. We can combine many of our tips into your nightly regimen. Turn off your computer or TV an hour before bed, do some gentle yoga, take a nice soak in the tub, and finish the night with a 5-10 minute guided meditation. You will be sleeping in no time!

Managing your chronic pain can be overwhelming. Wellness 360 has additional services to manage chronic pain including physical therapy and medical massage therapy. We specialize in treating neck pain & back pain. We also offer yoga & mindfulness classes. It is essential to start with one thing at a time. Stress management does not come by stressing yourself out! Pick one of the above options and implement it into your life. Once you implement one step, the other steps will fall into place. It is about making a conscious effort every day to show up for yourself. By changing your perspective, you can change your mindset. By changing your mindset, you can change your life. You are worth the self-care!

To read more about Welness 360 by checking out


Our Wellness Plus On-Demand exercise program has multiple options for stress reduction including Mindfulness Lessons, Mediation, Yoga, Tai Chi inspired motion, and more! Check out this sample chair yoga video designed for all fitness levels.


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