Could stress be the cause of your pain?

November 11th, 2023 by Jeannie Di Bon

Exercise | Mindfulness

Stress can be a good thing. We all need a little stress, just like we all need problems; these things keep us going and push us forward. If we didn’t have manageable stress or problems, we would just vegetate or stop growing. The trouble arises when stress becomes a chronic issue; when we have so much stress that we are simply overwhelmed.

Stress arises when we feel out of control – when we have demands on us that we feel pressured to do, are unable to do, or just unwilling to do. When we live out of balance like this for long periods, it takes a toll on your physical and mental health.

We move into place of fight or flight; high adrenaline, preparing for a significant event (in our ancestors’ time this would be fighting a bear!) The problem is the significant event never comes. The bear is often work stress or a busy schedule – we are living our normal day-to-day lives, which our brains now perceive as stressful or harmful. There is not a short burst of fight or flight which can save our lives in times of trouble. This state of high-alert anxiety stays with us for the long term.

We were not designed to operate in this high gear for lengthy periods. It changes our state. Our breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Heart rate increases. We find it difficult to relax and therefore sleep. Muscles become tight, ready for action. When muscles become tight and remain tight, they will soon let you know. This results in regular headaches, migraines, neck, shoulder and even lower back pain. Digestive issues are also common as the tension within the body impacts the digestive tract.

At this point, we now have a body that isn’t enjoying the oxygen-giving benefits of a full breath, is naturally feeling anxious because of a high heart rate, is in pain from tight muscles and is not sleeping. Typically, when we are in pain we don’t want to move, so we become more sedentary. We then start to miss out on the massive benefits of exercise.

It’s a pretty gloomy picture – a vicious cycle that all started from stress. The impact of stress on the mind and body is sadly underestimated.  According to the American Psychological Association, 75% of all doctors’ visits are for stress related ailments. It’s been linked to heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents and suicide. Left unmanaged, it can wear us out from the cellular level up to our major biological systems.

So what can we do to break this vicious cycle? Small changes can make all the difference; my favourites include:

  1. Moving: Exercise is a real stress reliever. Even a short walk is going to improve how you feel. If you are in pain, be kind to yourself and go gently. Movement is the best medicine for pain.
  2. Relaxing those tense muscles and thoughts: Calm the body and mind with a routine like yoga, Pilates, tai chi, and meditation.
  3. Sleep: Try to get a regular 7-9 hours sleep. Promoting the relaxation response before bed will help with some quiet time for deep conscious breathing.
  4. Going outside: Experiencing nature can help move you into a parasympathetic state.
  5. Practice gratitude every day: Take 3 minutes to think of 3 things you can be truly grateful for; they can be as simple as feeling the wind in your hair.
  6. Socialise: spending time with friends and family can have a huge impact on wellbeing.
  7. Find a support network: Someone you can chat to openly about how you feel. Try not to bottle things up because this allows problems to seem bigger than they are.
  8. Be kind to yourself: Be gentle, have little treats, and something to look forward to. Do things that you really want to do, rather than what will please others.
  9. My favourite – have a cuddle! A loved one, a dog, a cat. Touch can be fantastic for emotional wellbeing.

Sending you lots of stress-free thoughts!

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