What is the chronic pain stress cycle and how do I break it?
In simple terms, pain causes stress, and stress causes pain- a repeating cycle that seems impossible to break out of. However, although difficult, it is possible to break this cycle; stick with me until the end to find out how!
How does stress cause pain?
In small amounts, stress helps to control inflammation and glucose levels, making sure your body is in a state of normality. However, your body constantly being in a state of stress can cause muscles to tighten, as well as the overproduction of cortisol- also known as the ‘stress hormone’. This can lead to further muscle inflammation and increased pain overtime. Read more about your immune system’s response to stress here.
Furthermore, with stress, patients tend to avoid doing things which cause their symptoms to act up. For example, if you find that going for a run causes you pain, you may start to avoid exercise altogether. This behavior is called ‘fear of being in pain’- the avoidance of actions or movement in order to prevent pain. This is actually one of the main causes for the stress-pain cycle, as it means you are constantly focusing and worrying about your pain even before it happens, which can worsen your pain symptoms, and cause you to be stuck in the stress-pain loop indefinitely. Moreover, your muscles may become weaker from lack of exercise, consequently leaving you more susceptible to muscle inflammation.
Alternatively, how does pain cause stress?
Naturally, chronic pain patients tend to worry about their pain as it starts to persist. You may start to find that you aren’t able to do simple things, such as lift heavy objects or walk up the stairs. This can cause feelings of frustration and anxiousness to arise- all of which contribute towards stress.
How to break out of the cycle
Firstly, I would like to stress (pun intended) that I am not a medical professional, but the advice given in this article has been selectively handpicked from various trusted sources from over the internet. You can find out more about the science behind stress and the stress pain cycle in the links down below.
So let's take a look at the steps you can take to gradually break out of this seemingly never ending pain cycle. Here are a few lifestyle changes that you can take:
1. Stay active - An article from Stanford children’s health recommends starting from light to moderate exercises such as swimming, walking and biking, as they are low impact activities. For many patients, exercise can be a trigger for fear of pain therefore, establishing a daily routine of exercise can help you break out of the cycle. Furthermore, moving your body can help to get your blood flowing, hence muscles get adequate oxygen and nutrients.
2. Stop avoiding it! - Overly worrying about avoiding things that cause you pain can actually feed your ‘fear of pain’, and lock you in the stress-pain cycle. Instead of avoiding, face the fear head on. This may not be easy at first, but slowly working on breaking these fear habits will help you break out of the cycle.
3. Prioritize sleep - The optimal healing time for your body is during nighttime, therefore, good sleep can help to reduce pain and aid your body’s repair functions. Start by establishing a healthy sleeping routine, in which you wake up and sleep at the same time everyday, and avoiding caffeine during evenings. These little changes can go a long way in helping you break out from the cycle.
4. Find activities/ hobbies that you enjoy - Whether it may be socializing with friends, exercising, or painting, doing things that you enjoy can help boost your serotonin levels, as well as take your mind off the pain. By not constantly focusing on the pain, you are giving time for your mind to relax, and reduce the feeling of pain. Don’t let it take over your life!
5. Address causes of stress - Try to identify if there are other factors in your life that are causing you stress. Once these issues are identified, be proactive in dealing with them, by finding healthy coping mechanisms such as talking to your friends and family, meditation, or finding a therapist. Dealing with the root of your problem can help to reduce stress and pull you out from the stress-pain cycle.
6. Try relaxation techniques - Relaxation techniques can be natural relievers for stress, and help your mind function better. Consider meditation, or guided breathing - these can help with mind as well as muscle relaxation. For these techniques, there are loads of smartphone apps that help guide you through these techniques.