How Stress and Pain Connect (+ 3 Quick Tips)
There’s a reason you find yourself experiencing more headaches or muscle pain when you’re stressed out… Research shows that chronic stress can actually make us more sensitive to pain! Not only that, but prolonged stress over time can keep fight-or-flight systems chronically activated, leaving us depleted of resources that would otherwise help us feel better. If you experience chronic pain, this can be a difficult cycle to break. Chronic pain creates more stress, and that chronic stress in turn heightens the experience of pain. But if you’re stuck in the toxic cycle of stress and pain, never fear — there are ways to shift your relationship with stress to make your pain less intense and easier to manage.
What is Stress?
Stress is an unavoidable feature of life. Whether it’s financial stress, stress from our careers, or stress in our relationships — stress is inevitable. And the statistics show as much.
In 2022 the American Psychological Association reported that around ⅓ of American adults felt that stress was overwhelming most days. Just under ⅓ of respondents said that most days they were so stressed, they couldn’t even function.1
This paints a bleak picture of the future, especially considering the toll that chronic stress can take on us mentally and physically over time.
However, while we may not be able to avoid stressful events, research suggests we can shift the way we perceive them.
Because stress is unavoidable, learning to shift how we relate to it may be the key to promoting long-term physical health, especially when it comes to pain.
4 Ways Stress Affects Pain
1. Stress makes your body tense
Have you ever noticed yourself clenching your jaw, raising your shoulders, or tensing your muscles when you get stressed? This is a natural part of your stress response.
When your body registers a stressful event, it shifts certain physiological states to help you survive. These shifts include increases in your heart rate and blood pressure, quicker and shallower breathing, and yes — muscle tension. All of these changes are designed to help you run faster or fight harder against whatever danger you’re facing (even if that threat is simply meeting a deadline or delivering a presentation.)
Over time though, this chronic tension can lead to painful cramps, headaches, jaw pain, and even earaches.
2. Stress triggers the release of cortisol
When your body registers a threat such as stress, a cascade of changes takes place to help you survive, like we mentioned above. Many of these changes are mediated by a stress hormone called cortisol.
For short periods, cortisol can be a powerful anti-inflammatory. But when cortisol levels remain high for a long period, they can actually start causing inflammation.
As the body gets used to cortisol, inflammation occurs despite its presence. And as we experience cortisol depletion, inflammation levels soar even higher because our body isn’t used to regulating itself without it.
Because inflammation can heighten chronic nerve pain, this is a particularly impactful aspect of stress for those with chronic pain.
3. Long-term stress affects our perception of pain
You’ve likely noticed that when you’re stressed for a long period of time, you tend to get a bit crabby. When we experience stress, it doesn’t just have physical symptoms — it affects our mental health as well.
This isn’t all in your head. When you’re chronically stressed, your body experiences shifts in hormone production that actually affect your mood. For instance, the production of serotonin (known as our happiness hormone) often drops.
Our mood and how we perceive pain actually plays a big role in our experience of pain. When we experience negative emotions combined with a low energy response, it can prompt anxiety and heighten the experience of pain. On the other hand, positive emotions combined with a calmer approach have been known to reduce the experience of pain.2
4. Prolonged stress leads to increased pain sensitivity
In the short term, some of the hormones our stress response system releases provide an analgesic (pain-relieving) effect. However, as our stress system becomes dysregulated and resources become depleted over time, this pain-relieving effect goes away and leaves us more sensitive to even the slightest pains.
Chronically high-stress levels have also been found to reduce the level of dopamine activity (known as the feel-good hormone and is involved in learning and motivation). This decrease in dopaminergic activity is known to prompt hyperalgesia, or increased sensitivity to pain.2
For instance, one study of rats found that exposure to high stress led to a drop in dopamine levels that lasted 14 days following the stressor.3 Increased pain sensitivity lasted a total of 28 days after the stressful event.4
When it comes to people, studies have found that stress worsens pain for patients with gastroesophageal reflux, fibromyalgia patients, and chronic pain patients.5, 6, 7
3 Quick Tips to Manage Stress
1. Schedule time for regular self-check-ins.
It’s easy to get swept up in your day. Set an alarm on your phone for every 1-3 hours to do a quick 3-minute check-in with yourself. Take this time to connect with your breath, explore the sensations within your body, or reflect on how you feel before getting back to your to-dos.
2. Make 5-minute morning meditations part of your routine.
You don’t have to meditate for an hour to see the benefits. Giving yourself 5 minutes to connect with yourself in the morning can help you start your day with a sense of control and intention.
3. Be intentional with your time off.
When you’re finally free from work and all your responsibilities, it can be tempting to just flop on the couch and plug in your favorite TV show. While this is fine from time to time, it isn’t always restorative. Instead, be intentional with your time. Use it to engage your creative self by journaling, creating art, doing some mindful movement, or even lighting some scented candles and taking a bubble bath.