When we know we might be physically injured, we try to protect our bodies from the impact of the trauma by tensing our muscles. We do the same in a stressful situation. But instead of protecting us, the tense muscles can cause more problems.
Chronic Pain or Illness Can Be Worsened by Stress
Stress can cause physical pain for anyone. But for someone already living with chronic pain or illness, the effect can be tenfold.
Most commonly, tense muscles can cause headaches, neck, shoulder and back pain. If you already suffer from chronic pain in those areas, muscle tension will make the pain worse.
When stressed, we might also tighten our jaws, clench our teeth and even grind our teeth in our sleep. This is a surefire way to trigger or worsen headaches, migraines, trigeminal neuralgia or any other type of facial pain if you are already a sufferer.
If you’re stressed for a long time, those muscles will be tense for a long time too, making it more difficult to stop the pain. But stress doesn’t just affect pain. It can have a long term effect on other health issues such as:
Prolonged stress can upset sleep patterns. We might not sleep at all, only manage a few hours or we may sleep much more than normal. Lack of quality sleep can also have an impact on pain.
Our airways can become constricted. In a healthy person, this normally goes unnoticed. But if someone already has breathing difficulties, eg asthma or chronic bronchitis, this can cause asthma attacks, shortness of breath, hyperventilation or cause a panic attack.
A stressful situation can raise blood pressure. In most cases, it will return to a normal level. However, if someone is living with chronic stress, their raised blood pressure may become a problem. Raised blood pressure can lead to heart problems or strokes.
Everyone probably recognises the butterflies or that tight knot in the stomach during a stressful situation. Remember exam or job interview nerves? Some people suffer from stomach aches, can become physically sick or suffer from diarrhoea. If the stress becomes chronic, so can those problems.
Stress can make us change our eating habits. We might eat too much of the wrong foods or not eat enough. That’s be okay in the short term but it the longterm, it will cause problems. Some foods can exacerbate health conditions. Good nutrition is vital for everyone, but especially so if you have a chronic illness or take medication. Medication normally needs food to help it work properly. Taking it on an empty stomach might lead to serious problems.
We might get snappy and irritable. We might get down and want to curl up and sleep. Some people might turn to smoking or drinking more in the hope that it will help them through a tough time.
How Stress has Affected my Pain
I am a fairly calm person. I try not to let things get on top of me. But I’d be telling a whopping big lie if I said I never suffer from stress.
I’ve gone through times when stress has caused my pain to soar beyond anything I’d previously imagined. My Mum passed away in 2009 after suffering from cancer of the kidney. When she was ill, I spent as much time as possible with her, doing whatever was within my capabilities to help. I coped. Thankfully, my pain stayed at manageable levels.
After my Mum passed away, my pain started to soar. Grief can affect people in many ways and it affected my pain. But I wasn’t just grieving. I was worrying about my Dad and a young relative who was very ill. The weather was bad and we were snowed in. I wanted to support my family, but I couldn’t leave the house. I was feeling guilty because I could do nothing to help. My pain levels were ridiculously high for months.
At the time, I didn’t associate stress levels with my pain. But looking back, I know it contributed. Since then, I’ve learned coping skills to try to help me through difficult situations.
What can we do to Reduce the Impact of Stress?
The simple answer would be to avoid it altogether, but that’s not always possible. Stress is a natural reaction to many situations in life, such as:
- Moving house
- Health worries
- Family worries
- Financial problems
- Exams or interviews
- Losing or changing jobs
- Living with chronic pain or illness
If you’re stressed about something minor, is it really worth stressing over? Is there something you can change to alleviate the stress?
If something major is happening in life, some stress might be unavoidable. But we can learn techniques to try to reduce its impact.
Take it one moment at a time. Try to focus on now, not later, not tomorrow or next week. Try to just concentrate on now and breathe.
There are many calming breathing exercises you can learn. Belly breathing (diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing) is a favourite technique of mine.
When you breathe from the chest, like during the fight-or-flight response to a stressful event or when you exercise, your lungs take in the extra oxygen you need to fuel the heart and muscles.
In contrast, belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the head down the neck, through the chest, and to the colon. This activates your relaxation response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure and lowering stress levels.
Harvard Medical School
Talk About it
Talking to family, friends, a doctor or counsellor can help. Sometimes talking can put things in perspective or just get it out of your system and help you to cope better. If you’re stressed after an argument or misunderstanding, try to talk it through with whoever is involved.
Write it Down
Writing can be a very therapeutic tool. Writing about the situation, about all the small details can get it out of your head. You could journal, or just write it on paper, then scrunch it up or tear it into pieces and throw it away.
Try to be aware of tight, tense muscles when you’re stressed. Be aware of your clenched jaws and tight shoulders.Leave a small gap between your upper and lower teeth. Imagine you are holding a coin between your teeth so you can’t bite down.
There are many calming relaxation techniques you could try: yoga, qigong, Reiki, meditation, mindfulness, massage, aromatherapy, a warm bath. Or just try winding down by listening to music or reading a book. Exercise may not sound relaxing, but it can also be a good method to destress.
Sometimes we need a distraction from our problems, but sometimes the news or social media can bring even more stress. We might worry about what’s happening in the world or what’s happening with other people. Sometimes it’s good to just switch off for a while.
Children Suffer From Stress Too
Remember that children suffer from stress too, but they might not recognise what’s wrong or how to deal with it. Try to talk to them and teach them how to cope. It’s important to seek professional help if necessary.
I hope you’ve found this post helpful, but if you are struggling to cope with stress, please do seek help from your doctor.
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