Anxiety and Agony
Manage your stress levels and control your pain.
By Marie Look
Anxiety Agony, stress and pain are an unwelcome but inseparable pair. When you’re in pain, it stresses you out. When you’re under stress, it can cause or further aggravate pain. And around and around the cycle goes. So it makes sense then that taking steps toward helping one also helps the other. But what can you do to solve them both? Let’s find out.
What is Stress?
The first step toward minimizing pain by keeping your stress levels in check is understanding the science behind all of it. When presented with a stressful situation, your body’s nervous system automatically initiates your “fight or flight” response, which includes a release of adrenaline and other chemicals to keep us alert and help us avoid danger. In emergencies, that physical response can be helpful — even life-saving. But when sustained over a long period of time, stress leads to a condition called distress, which disrupts the body’s normal processes and causes a wide range of unhealthy symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms
You’re likely already familiar with how stress manifests itself in your life, but there may be symptoms you experience that you’re not aware are linked to stress.
In mental and emotional terms, stress is a feeling of intense pressure caused by demands being placed upon you, whether they are external or internal. Maybe you feel like your boss is dumping a lot of extra work on you. Maybe finances are tight. Maybe you want to perform well on an upcoming test or presentation. Regardless of what’s causing the strain, stress can alter your thoughts, feelings and behavior, leaving you anxious, irritable and lacking self-confidence.
According to the American Psychological Association’s report “Stress in America” (2010), these mental and emotional changes can lead to over- or under- eating, substance abuse, angry outbursts, depression or the urge to withdraw from your friends and family. And physical symptoms include headaches; difficulty falling or staying asleep; fatigue; indigestion; trouble concentrating; a racing pulse; diminished sex drive; excessive perspiration; pain in the chest, back, neck or jaw; and other reoccurring ailments.
Keep in mind Mayo Clinic warns that if you’re experiencing chest pain, especially accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea or pain radiating into your shoulder and arm, you should seek emergency help immediately, as these could be the warning signs of a heart attack!
Managing Stress to Manage Pain
While some connections between stress and pain require more research, others are more definitive. For example, the American Heart Association admits that while the exact nature of the link between the two isn’t completely clear, the damage an increased heart rate and blood pressure can do to your artery walls is very real. The good news is, reducing the level of stress in your life will not only prevent all the above conditions from piling up on top of the pain you may already be experiencing, it could also improve your pain symptoms. Here are a few actions you can easily take today to lower your stress levels and start reaping the benefits of a more balanced body and calmer state of mind:
Exercise. If you’re capable of incorporating physical activity into your life, it can be a powerful weapon in the battle against stress. Not only is it a welcome distraction, it’s also been shown to relieve tension and improve sleep, focus and concentration. For individuals who are feeling helpless or like they have little control over their circumstances, exercise can provide a feeling of empowerment. And here’s the big one: When you exercise, your body produces endorphins — “feel-good” neurotransmitters that increase feelings of overall well-being and happiness.
Laugh. You know, there may be something to that saying “laughter is the best medicine.” Laughter releases endorphins and lowers your blood pressure, making it just a little bit easier for your heart to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. And improved circulation leads to increased energy, higher quality of sleep and a brighter outlook on life. So watch a comedy, read a funny book, and spend time with family and friends who have positive attitudes.
Sleep. According to APA’s “Stress in America” (2010) report, more than 40 percent of all adults say they lie awake at night because of stress. Consistently getting enough shuteye is crucial to maintaining well-functioning immune and endocrine systems, fighting fatigue and keeping your metabolism stable. Studies have also shown that people who slept well after having just undergone surgery required lower-level painkillers or smaller dosages. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults require seven to nine hours of sleep per night, so do what you must to get those z’s.
Slow down. If you think it could help, and if it’s at all possible, try taking a few things off your plate. When looking at your day planner induces anxiety, you should start getting accustomed to saying “no.” Be protective of your time, particularly the time you reserve for your family and for yourself, and minimize multitasking. If you find multitasking is the only way you can fulfill all your obligations, then you have too many to-do’s and it’s time to cut some loose. Bonus: Cutting down your engagements will help you make time for all the stress-relieving actions above.
Clean up your diet. Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet complete with antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients is not only important for aiding your body in healing and boosting immunity, but many foods also have pain-alleviating properties. For example, small amounts of caffeine can help reduce headaches by improving blood flow in the brain. Do your research and discuss with your doctor the foods you can incorporate into your diet — as well as foods you should avoid — to ease your pain on a day-to-day basis.
Journal or talk to a friend or family member. Sharing what you’re thinking, feeling and experiencing — including your pain — can help to eliminate some of your stress, whether this means keeping a daily written record, or regularly calling a friend. Keeping your thoughts and feelings bottled up inside will only serve to increase your blood pressure, inhibit sleep and weaken the body in other ways.
You’ll notice medicines aren’t on the above list. That’s because they haven’t been very successful in treating stress, only the symptoms of stress, such as anxiety. Once the medications wear off, individuals find they’re right back where they started. It’s more effective to manage stress by making lifestyle changes, such as the above, that can lead to long-term improvements — in stress, in pain management, and in your overall health.
Take a step today toward relief by creating a stress reduction plan for yourself that incorporates some of these actions. And see your doctor so he or she can discuss additional considerations and check for other potential stressors. You have more power than you think you do in managing the stress in your life, and your body will thank you for it.