PAIN, PAIN, PAIN, PAIN, PAIN…CAN STRESS INCREASE YOUR PAIN LEVELS?
The short answer is, YES! Stress is related to muscle pain!
Stress can do many things to your body. For your muscle system, it means increasing your resting muscle tone, and holding your body in positions that tighten your muscles. Resting muscle tone is the amount of tension in your muscles while you are at rest. An increase in resting tone means you are tightening the muscles more than you need to stay upright. This leads to pain, tension, and discomfort.
People hold stress in different areas, most often you can see or feel an increased resting tone in your neck, shoulders, low back, and hips. Take a quick check of your body right now. Close our eyes, take a deep breath, and pay attention to the muscles in your neck, shoulders, low back, and hips. Does it feel like you can relax the muscles a bit more and still stay upright? If so you have been tightening those muscles more than required, and you may have some tension or pain in these areas.
This is how stress can lead to increased pain. Your body is constantly holding these muscles tight and when you constantly tighten a muscle, there will be a lack of circulation and motion to the area. This leads to stiffness in the joints surrounding the muscles, as well as poor exchange of nutrients and waste to and from the tightened area.
STRESS AND TISSUE HEALING
Stress can also slow down healing. The main hormone that is released during times of stress is cortisol. In the old hunter/ gatherer days, this stress response was vital to our survival. If you see a lion running after you, your brain will activate the stress response, and release cortisol into your system so you can immediately reroute all energy sources away from your digestive system, reproductive system, and other growth processes, to your muscles, heart, and lungs to either run, or fight the lion. After the danger is over, your body decreases cortisol levels and blood flow returns to its normal state.
If you have an injury during a stress response, the body is not bringing nutrients and circulation to the injured area which slows down healing.
WHAT HAPPENS WITH CONSTANT STRESS?
The daily stresses that we have today are not normally situations where we need to run for our lives. Stress today is more constant, like earning enough money to pay off debt, managing kids, work, older parents, and keeping the house in order all at the same time, or dealing with a bad work environment. The body responds to stress the same regardless of the situation – a lion, or paying rent. The amount of cortisol that is constantly released in your body is harmful to many of your body’s natural processes.
WHAT DOES A PROLONGED STRESS RESPONSE DO TO OUR BODY?
1. Increase muscle tension, pain, and headaches
People can hold tension and pain in different areas, common areas include the shoulders, neck, jaw, low back, hips.
2. Lead to digestive problems
When blood is directed away from the digestive system, this can lead to poor and slow digestion and result in conditions like indigestion and constipation.
3. Lead to cardiac issues
A constant increase in heart rate can increase our blood pressure, which can lead to other cardiac issues such as stroke, heart attacks, and other heart diseases
4. Lead to insomnia
Sleep is where the body heals itself. During deep sleep, there is an increase of circulation to muscles which will help bring new nutrients and take away waste products in injured areas. As well, growth hormones and other hormones that control inflammation are released during this time to improve healing. Lack of sleep will impair injury healing and repair.
5. Lower immunity
The prolonged stress response will decrease the body’s white blood cells putting you at higher risk of infections, and illnesses.
6. Lead to mental health issues
Constant stress can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.
HOW CAN YOU DECREASE YOUR STRESS LEVELS?
The easiest way to decrease your stress levels is to remove or decrease your exposure to the stressor. Sometimes it means making some hard decisions. If your stressor is dealing with a difficult person, this might look like decreasing time with the difficult person, having boundaries with that person, or simply saying no to things that you don’t want to do.
2. Time Management
Organizing your day and setting realistic goals on how much you can accomplish can help decrease your stress. Take 5 minutes before starting your day to put down the top 3-5 things you would like to accomplish for the day. This will help prioritize your tasks and focus yourself on what is most important.
Meditation can help calm your nerves and slow down your brain and body. If you are feeling antsy, unfocused, and scattered: stop, close your eyes, and take 5 deep belly breaths. Try to put all that mental chatter aside in a box, tell that voice in your head that you can get back to it after 5 minutes. Give your brain some space to quiet down and breathe. Give this a try, and you will find that you will be more focused and less stressed. Meditation is also known to decrease pain levels especially for those with chronic pain.
Exercise is always a good way to decrease stress. Exercise releases endorphins in the body that helps elevate your mood and relieve pain.
Writing can help process thoughts, experiences, and ‘take things off your mind’ to help improve your focus, concentration, and decrease stress. For some, simply writing down tasks that need to be completed can declutter the mind to improve mental clarity.