It’s a vicious cycle people with chronic pain know well: Pain causes you stress and stress exacerbates your pain. While everyday evidence points to a connection between stress and pain (and vice versa), research is also highlighting this connection.|
What Research Shows
We’ve all heard of the fight-or-flight response to stressors, and you’ve probably felt it triggered when you sense danger in your immediate surroundings. When you experience stress, your body undergoes a number of physical changes. These include an accelerated heart rate and increases in everything from the force of each heartbeat to respiration rate to gastrointestinal motility (the contractions that move food through your digestive tract).
In a way, this means that your body is preparing you to respond to an immediate threat. If you have chronic or near-constant stress, then you’re essentially preparing for an emergency at any and every moment.
Stress responses can vary widely among different people for all sorts of reasons, but whatever your background, high stress levels can hurt. Stress has been linked to conditions such as headaches, migraines, fibromyalgia and chronic pain. While some stress is a good thing (helping you to think clearly and deal with crises, for example), ongoing stress can leave us feeling anxious, and even depressed.
Have you ever had an upset stomach before giving a presentation? Because signals pass directly from the brain to the gut, stress can have a gastrointestinal impact, too. Brain signals to the gut can alter intestinal contractions; gut signals to the brain can prevent proper pain regulation. In other words, a distressed gastrointestinal system can cause pain and alter your perception of that same pain.
More research is needed, but a link between chronic stress and heart disease has also been documented, especially in men. In fact, stress can even cause a reversible heart problem called stress cardiomyopathy, in which the heart has temporary dysfunction without a clear cause.
Stress and Pain Perception
Stress increases pain, both by causing the physical changes that exacerbate physical conditions (tension, anyone?) and by changing the way we perceive pain. When we’re stressed out, pain simply seems worse. So, if you’re feeling relaxed and happy, but accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer, you may suffer less than if you were already feeling stressed before the accident.
Stress can slow healing, too. A 2011 study of wound healing suggested that stress increases the likelihood of acquiring infections and makes people more likely to discard healthy habits like getting enough sleep, exercising and limiting alcohol consumption.