A recent study released by the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, has confirmed what many already experience: chronic pain sufferers are more likely to have anxiety than the rest of the population. While depression and its link to chronic pain has been well-established in the research, it wasn’t clear until this most recent study just how prevalent anxiety in chronic pain patients is. Because of this, very little research focuses on ways of dealing with anxiety for chronic pain patients.

Dealing with anxiety: The basics

Researchers screened chronic pain patients for five anxiety disorders:

  • Generalized anxiety: Persistent worry without direct cause
  • Panic: Sudden, repeated attacks of fear, also without clear, traceable cause
  • Social anxiety: Anxiety and difficulty coping with social situations and interactions
  • Post-traumatic stress: Hypervigilance, panic, and fear that occurs after traumatic events
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Repetition of rituals, thoughts, and actions that interfere with daily life

A full 45% of chronic pain sufferers screened positive for one or more of these five disorders, also noting more extremes of pain. Researchers noted that the number might drop if patients underwent a full psychiatric screening, with 20% of patients most likely screening positive.

The issue with dealing with anxiety and other mood disorders that are comorbid with chronic pain is that the last thing pain patients want is one more drug to take. Here are 15 of the best drug-free ways for dealing with anxiety.

1. Eat well

Anxiety can sometimes be accompanied by physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. Support your overall health by making good food choices that include belly-soothing ginger, whole grains, and fresh fruit. Some people find that “grazing” (eating small portions more frequently) help them to feel better.

2. Breathe

Many times anxiety and pain cause us to hold our breath. This can be physically detrimental to every system of our body. When anxiety arises, make a conscious effort to slow your breathing and breathe more deeply on both the inhale and the exhale. Count while you breathe, then try to make your counts equal on both the inhalation and the exhalation. Remembering to breathe is one of the simplest and best ways of dealing with anxiety.

3. Imagine the worst

This technique may not be right for you, but for some, anxiety is all about the unknown. Imagine the worst thing that could happen in your situation, then see yourself handling it. Brainstorm ways to approach what you envision happening, and you may find yourself a little less anxious.

4. Imagine the best

If thinking about the worst thing that could happen just makes your heart pound, go in the opposite direction and focus on the best thing you can imagine. Maybe it is a restful vacation or a particular person. Focus your thoughts on the feelings that generates.

5. Be present

Instead of thinking about something else, practice mindfulness and just be present with what is happening. Your mind is racing, your heart is pounding, and you are sweating. Just sit with those feelings without judgment and allow them to be. Instead of calling them something particular or assigning them value (i.e., “I am having an anxiety attack.”), feel them and let them be.

6. Talk it out

If possible, sit with a trusted friend, either in person or on the phone, and talk about what might be causing the anxiety. Even if you cannot pinpoint the cause of anxiety, sometimes just verbalizing it and getting support can help.

7. Work it out

Making exercise a daily part of your routine can help those dealing with anxiety. For some people, vigorous exercise that gets the blood pumping works best, but for others, flowing exercise that incorporates relaxation and breathing does the trick.

8. Walk it out

Spending time in the natural world is a proven way to reduce anxiety. The areas in the prefrontal cortex slow down, relaxing and allowing the brain to become calm and nourished by nature. The same benefit is not gleaned from a stroll through a busy area, so aim for a park or a forest while you stroll.

9. Get very sleepy

Hypnosis is gaining popularity as a drug-free way to address anxiety. This practice is mostly used to help patients relax and concentrate.

10. Get some feedback

Biofeedback, that is. Biofeedback measures a person’s physical response to anxiety and then offers specific relaxation techniques to ameliorate it. Changes in skin temperature, rapid heartbeat, and shallow breathing are all signs of impending anxiety. Biofeedback teaches chronic pain sufferers to recognize these signs and head off a full-blown attack.

11. Talk yourself out of it

One feature of some types of anxiety is negative or catastrophic self-talk. This kind of talk takes small events and blows them up until anxiety takes over. Recognizing that this is happening is the first step. Take it one further and reassure yourself that everything will be okay.

12. Build your own mantra

Mantras can be very powerful words that you repeat to yourself whenever you need them. Coupled with breathing techniques, mantras may even be able to pull you out of an anxiety attack. Choose something simple like, “I have everything I need,” or “Everything will be okay.” Keep it easy to remember and meaningful to you.

13. Learn your triggers

If you know what triggers your anxiety attacks you are better armed to deal with them before they start. While it is often not possible to avoid anxious situations entirely, knowing what makes you anxious beforehand can help you prepare yourself for dealing with anxiety later.

14. Limit stimulants

Caffeine and nicotine are both stimulants. If you are a smoking coffee (or soda) drinker, you are not doing yourself any favors. Limit or quit caffeine, and quit smoking altogether.

15. Distract yourself

While this may not be a long-term solution to dealing with the root causes of anxiety, sometimes a little bit of distraction can go a long way in dealing with the immediacy of an anxiety attack. Listening to music or reading a light-hearted book can help take your mind off your anxiety.

The connection between chronic pain and anxiety is strong, but there are ways to reduce anxiety. If you suffer from anxiety, with or without chronic pain, what suggestions can you add to this list?


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