April 12, 2024

5 Tips to Break the Cycle of Stress and Chronic Pain

Stress and chronic pain (unfortunately) go hand in hand. Explore the relationship between stress and chronic pain, plus 5 stress management tips for relief.

It’s pretty well known that long-term stress takes a toll on wellbeing. So, is it any surprise that stress also makes pain worse?

If you live with chronic pain, you’ve likely seen this toxic relationship in action many times over.

Stress from pressure at work, conflict with family and friends, or global events can feel draining and headache-inducing for all of us. But stress’s effects are magnified for people with chronic pain, creating a toxic cycle of stress that increases pain, which increases stress, and so on.

Here’s a quick preview of what we’ll explore in this article:

  • What is stress?

  • The tricky relationship between stress and pain

  • 5 approaches for managing stress in your life to promote wellbeing

What is stress?

Stress isn’t just a feeling we get when life is overwhelming. It’s a physiological experience that’s evolutionarily hard-wired into us. 

When your brain perceives something as a threat, it triggers a cascade of physical responses (fight or flight) to help you overcome it. Your muscles tense, your heart beats faster, and you start breathing more shallowly. To trigger these survival responses, your brain deprioritizes “non-essential” activities like digestion, immune system function, and the reproductive system.

When the stressor is short-lived, our bodies return to healthy, balanced functioning fairly quickly. But when chronic, stress can wreak havoc on physical and mental health.

The relationship between long-term stress and pain

If you live with chronic pain, you’ve likely noticed your pain spikes when you’re more stressed. This isn’t just in your head — research suggests that stress has a very real effect on both the severity of and sensitivity to pain.1

For example, chronic stress:

  • Boosts inflammation

  • Increases muscle tension

  • Triggers chemical shifts that heighten pain sensitivity —

All of which make pain feel more intense, prompt flare-ups, and increase chronic fatigue. But the cycle doesn’t stop there. The added pain naturally makes many feel more stressed, which feeds back into more pain. 

  • Extra stress can also affect mental health and daily routines, and often not for the better. We may lean more on less healthy comfort-giving foods, move less throughout the day, and isolate from support systems. These lifestyle changes can further worsen the experience of pain.

    Explore 5 joint-friendly workouts for arthritis >>


    5 ways to manage stress

    If you live with chronic pain, the idea of less stress might seem like a fantasy. But a life with less stress is possible for you. Here are 5 approaches many with chronic pain have found helpful for dealing with stress in their lives.

1. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about connecting with and accepting the present moment as it is. This might sound scary if you live with chronic pain. But the research suggests mindfulness exercises like meditation can have positively effect both stress and pain.2 

Practicing mindfulness can strengthen control over focus, so it’s easier to take your mind away from your pain, manage negative thoughts that can worsen pain, and more fully enjoy the good moments in your life.

Here are a few ways you can get started with mindfulness:

  1. Mindfulness meditation: In a quiet place, sit for 5 minutes and focus on your breath and your internal experience. As thoughts and feelings naturally arise, observe them, then let them go and return to your breath.

  2. Mindful living: Embrace mindfulness by exploring your experience as you walk, eat, do household chores, and more. Explore what’s happening in your body and what you see, hear, smell, and feel.

  3. Gratitude: Practice gratitude by writing down 3 things you’re grateful for daily. Or write a letter to someone expressing your appreciation for them. Research has found practicing gratitude can positively impact wellbeing!3

2. Distract Yourself

When the pain is overwhelming, a good option is to have distractions on hand. Create a quick list of activities you can easily choose from to distract yourself when needed.

That could look like a:

  • Talking with a friend

  • Playing video games

  • Reading a beloved book

  • Watching your favorite movie

  • Listening to a podcast you’re obsessed with

Experiment to find what feels most effective in keeping your mind off your pain.

3. Deep breathing

A review of 15 studies found that breath and stress have a bi-directional relationship.4 This means your stress impacts your breath, but your breath also affects your stress levels.

For example, when stressed, you’ll naturally start taking shorter, shallower breaths. When relaxed, your breathing grows deeper and slower. So if you’re stressed, one way to relax is with deep breathing.

Here’s how to get started:

  1. Find a comfortable place where you can close your eyes and focus inward.

  2. Inhale slowly and deeply for 4 to 8 seconds.

  3. Pause at the top of your inhale, then slowly exhale for 4 to 8 seconds.

  4. Continue breathing in this pattern for 5-10 minutes.

You can place your hands around your ribcage or on your belly to make sure you’re breathing into your belly and not your chest and shoulders.

4. Progressive muscle relaxation

A great way to relieve muscle tension (and let go of stress) is with progressive muscle relaxation.5 In this exercise, you’ll systematically tense, then relax your muscles one at a time.

Here’s how to get started:

  1. Find a quiet place you can comfortably lie down and close your eyes.

  2. Begin by tuning into your breath and observing what’s going on internally.

  3. On your next inhale, focus on the muscles on your face and squeeze them for 10 seconds. Clench your jaw, pucker your lips, scrunch your nose.

  4. Then release the tension over the next 10 seconds.

  5. Next, tense your shoulders up next to your ears and hold for 10 seconds before relaxing for the next 10 seconds.

  6. Continue this cycle of tensing and relaxing through your arms, hands, stomach and abs, glutes, quads, calves, and feet.

Here’s a quick guided video to help >>

5. Find paths to joy

Reserve time on your calendar for low-energy activities that feel truly restorative for you. Celebrate your wins, big and small. Use mindfulness to savor the good moments. 

Practicing and living in joy and peace wherever you find it is a natural stress reliever that not only restores your body and mind, but can soothe your soul as well.

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