How Chronic Pain or Illness is Affected by Stress

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.

How chronic pain or illness is affected by stress. Picture of woman sitting on word stress.

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.

When stress is high, pain is high. Picture of woman stressed and in pain

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:

Sleep

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.

Breathing

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.

Blood Pressure

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.

Stomach Troubles

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.

Eating

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.

Mood

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. Picture or road sign saying 'stress' and 'relax'

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:

  • Bereavement
  • Moving house
  • Health worries
  • Family worries
  • Unemployment
  • 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.

Time

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.

Breathing Exercises

There are many calming breathing exercises you can learn. Belly breathing (diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing) is a favourite technique of mine.

Belly Breathing. Learn to belly breathe to help stress.

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.

Be Aware

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.

Stress Relief. Learn to relax.

Relaxation Techniques

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.

News/Social Media

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.

Please leave a comment below and share this post on your social media pages. Thank you.

26 thoughts on “How Chronic Pain or Illness is Affected by Stress

  1. myvertigoandme

    Hi Liz, I don’t have chronic pain but I do have severe dizziness and vertigo. It it greatly effected by stress and anxiety. I have found meditation a great help to me over the last few years. I used to live in isolation in the U.K for years. Now I live in Florida with my wonderful wife who I met online and taught me to Transcendental Meditation.I am proof that it works.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ashleysanatomy1

    This is a much needed post. A lot of people do not understand the impact stress can have on the body. I have a chronic illness and stress definitely is a trigger for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think stress and chronic pain/illness can go around in a vicious cycle, and there are a lot of aspects to consider. I’m so sorry for everything you went through with losing your mum, and everything else at the time that just piled on the stress and worry. You’ve written the post incredibly well and I think it’s such a vital issue to cover because stress shouldn’t be underestimated.
    Caz xx

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great job covering this topic so thoroughly. It gets covered a lot, but you’ve included a few points I’ve never seen before and gave me more to consider about how I’m managing my stress. With PTSD and anxiety from dysautonomia, I can never have too many tools to help in this battle! Thanks so much for your thoroughness! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When I first started my corporate job and was working 18 hour days I was so stressed and not even aware of it. It took me a long time to realize that so many of my (mostly minor) physical issues were arising from the stress I was putting myself under. Now while I consciously try to recognize when I’m stressed it’s not very easy to always relax myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This post is fantastic! I tend to forget how stress can affect us in ways we may not realize. I love your mention of deep breathing. I struggle with anxiety, and the deep breathing really helps me. I totally forgot about the vagus nerve! I’m still working on my breathing techniques. Thanks!

    Like

  7. I feel like you wrote this post for me this week! I had a meltdown earlier on because my blog is expensive to run, we had issues with my husband’s job and direct depositing our money, and he is also looking at changing jobs by the end of the year. Luckily it has all been handled, but I had a few days where I wanted to give up because my stress levels were off the charts. I was horribly irritable with the two people I love most in this world. Thankfully they handled it well. I’ve also noticed that my jaw tenses up and just hurts when I have added stress. I’ve had it dislocated a number of times. Once it happens once, it is easy to happen forever after that. So the pain is something I’ve learned to work around. But when I get stressed, it gets significantly worse and feels like it hurts for no reason. I’m definitely learning to pay attention to that these days and focus on reducing both the stress and the pain.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Kelly Martin

    Chronic stress has a huge impact on the body. I’ve been trying some relaxation techniques lately to reduce stress and improve my health.

    Like

  9. Stress certainly has a big impact on the body & I am almost 100% certain that it can cause illnesses like Cancer. I’m certain stress caused my grandfather’s cancer. It impacted my life for years leading up to my breakdown. In the few months before my breakdown, I was on medication to help with obstruction of the bowel because I could not use the bathroom. The doctors gave me laxatives and sent me away, didn’t even offer anything other than a sample test. I was anorexic for years, and so giving me something like laxatives is a big no-no. Ultimately it led me down the wrong path again. Since leaving the job I was prviously in I no longer have any issues with my bowels at all. It was almost as if it happened over night.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Such good information. Good stress (like buying a house or the birth of a baby) is still stress to your body. I went through a time period where so many good things were happening and I had some of the issues you are talking about. It was hard to make sense of until my doctor said “Good stress is still stress.” it was like a light bulb. Finding ways to deal with it is key.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is so true. I used to get migraines something awful! Even the tiniest bit of stress could cause a migraine that was on it’s way out to come back full force. It was awful!

    Like

  12. This is a great read! Although I don’t have chronic pain, I do find that when I begin to feel stress, it affects all areas of my body. And, if I don’t find ways to deal with stress, it can take a toll on me and my well-being, and those around me. Breathing techniques, essential oils, and just removing myself from the situation have all proven to be helpful ways I tend to deal with stress.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. hELENA

    Absolutely true!!!! In my case, it come to be one of the first triggering vital situations that, put me down very badly .
    Thank you for bringing this issue to twitter.

    HOPE YOU ALL LESS PAIN.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I really loved this post and found it so helpful. Thankyou for having the courage to share your story so vulnerably. I can feel my own pain soaring as soon as I feel stressed or anxious, which then makes me more stressed and anxious! But there are so many tools we can use, as you say. Belly breathing has saved me on so many occasions.

    Liked by 2 people

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