It may seem obvious that chronic pain causes all kinds of stress, but you may not have realized that pain itself is also a stressor. Learn how techniques like mindfulness can help you soothe the effects of the stress and pain cycle on your brain and body to help lower pain and improve your well-being.
What Is Stress?
We can define stress as a “challenging emotional event” that requires you to make “adaptive changes” to regain emotional and physical equilibrium and stability (Abdallah et al., 2017).
Stress triggers your fight-or-flight response, which readies your body to cope with dangerous situations. The threat detection regions in your brain called the hippocampus and amygdala, trigger the release of stress hormones, called cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause your sympathetic nervous system to trigger changes in your body that you experience as an increased heart rate, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, sticky palms, and tensed muscles.
Pain Is a Physical and Emotional Experience
Pain may seem straightforward—nerves send a signal that you are hurt from your body to your brain.
But it is more than a physical sensation; it is also a mental and emotional experience. When acute pain is associated with a positive and desired outcome, like getting a tattoo, it is felt very different than pain which is associated with fear and anxiety, like a car accident. Researchers call this process of pain interpretation appraisal and the emotional response reactivity (Davis et al., 2015).
Chronic pain is a complex emotional experience. The ongoing nature of pain conditions leads to anxiety about the future (Will it ever end? Will it get worse?).
The unpredictability of flares can lead to a feeling of losing control in life, as well as anticipating that any activity will worsen pain sensations. These thoughts and feelings about pain can also trigger our stress response system, which in turn makes pain sensations feel more intense.
Pain Triggers Stress and Stress Worsens Pain
Over time, nerves that constantly carry pain signals can become increasingly sensitive. For example, a light touch that previously felt like pressure may now feel painful, or gentle exercise may now cause a flare, even if there are no injuries. This is called central nervous system sensitization.
Studies show that pain sensitization makes the threat detection regions of the brain hyperactive, as your amygdala is constantly on the look-out for the next cause of a pain flare. And having your stress response system on a hair-trigger amplifies pain signals (Crofford, 2015; Greenwood-Van Meerveld et al., 2018; and Martinez et al., 2014).
5 Ways to End the Pain and Stress Cycle
The good news is that there are multiple ways to interrupt the stress-pain cycle and begin to soothe your nervous system.
Mindfulness meditation can help you reduce stress and pain by reappraising your thoughts and emotions about experiencing pain and calming reactive responses.
Mindfulness is about cultivating a present-moment, accepting, and nonjudgmental awareness of stress and pain. It “foster[s] the development of a decentered view that thoughts, emotions and physical sensations are simply temporary experiences” (Davis et al., 2015).
In response to pain sensations, mindfulness shifts attention away from difficult thoughts and emotional reactions, and towards breathing and being present.
Mindfulness also increases self-awareness, so you can make earlier, better, and more intentional decisions to improve your well-being before pain or stress becomes too intense (Davis et al., 2015). Mindfulness can help you lower hyper-vigilance and restore emotional balance during painful flares. Consider looking into mindfulness programs for chronic pain self-management.
Physical touch, like sharing a hug with a loved one, releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin and reduces cortisol. Reach out for affection when you are feeling stressed.
It’s the best medicine! Watch standup comedy or a funny tv show to reduce tension and boost your immune system.
Getting out into nature lowers stress levels and boosts mood. Even spending a few moments looking outside at a tree or garden, or at pictures of the ocean or flowers, can lower cortisol levels.
Listening to music every day can reduce pain and anxiety, and is an easy way to soothe a stressed-out nervous system.