How much of your physical pain is compounded or exacerbated by emotional stress? For some people, a lot. When they find themselves in a stressful situation, their back spasms up again. Or their stomach starts to cramp. Or the migraines come back with a vengeance. Does this mean there isn’t a physical root to the pain? Of course not. But it does mean that we can each take pro-active steps to reduce stress and thereby potentially impact our pain.
How can we know whether our pain is worsened by stress? Well, keep a journal. Every time you find yourself in a stressful situation—and that might be a prolonged situation, such as an unpleasant work environment–note in your journal whether your pain has worsened. Does your back feel better as soon as you leave work? Does your headache seems to get better as soon as you leave a toxic “friend”‘s house? We often attribute these changes to something other than the emotional environment around us, because it really is hard to pinpoint emotional stressors.
For many people, they might say work is “tough” but not stressful. Or they might say “I manage it well.” Others might say their friend isn’t really toxic, she’s just “needy” or “overbearing”. But for sensitive people, each of these situations could well trigger a painful episode, or further worsen an already existing one.
What Can We Do?
Obviously, if you can remove yourself from the stressful situation, that would be best for you and your health. But what if you can’t? For example, perhaps you have an emotionally distressed child who causes you stress–you can’t just leave the child. And what about a job that causes you stress? Can’t just up and leave so easily until you find another position. Or maybe it’s your spouse who’s causing you anxiety and increasing your stress levels. You can go to therapy, or a walk on the beach, but until the underlying issues are resolved, it’s not likely you’re going to up and leave at the first sign of stress. You have to learn to manage it regardless.
So here are my suggestions:
A. Eat healthy. I know it sounds so simply, but really, making yourself a slow meal of salad, homemade bread, and a nice glass of wine (or flavored water if you don’t drink) can do wonders. Turn on some classical music, light a candle or diffuse some essential oils (love Release blend) and slow down.
B. Breathe. Meditate or simply sit on your chair and breathe. No phone, no tv, no music, no computer, just silence. Breathe deeply into your abdomen and out for 10 minutes.
C. Focus on a hobby. Knitting, crocheting, cross stitch, photography, baking…all these and more can provide a release from stress. What you want is to get into a state of ‘flow” where time seems to pass without your noticing. Watch this Ted talk to learn more:
D. Exercise. This could be gentle yoga or something more vigorous. But moving your body has been clinically proven to reduce stress and thereby help physical pain. There has been relatively little study on the role of exercise in directly influencing pain levels, but in general, I have found that if you do a tolerable level of exercise it general releases endorphins sufficiently that pain levels decrease.
E. Read. There are a few books I recommend for those of you experiencing chronic pain. Take a look. I get no commission or financial benefit by recommending these books.
Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat Zinn
Mind Over Back Pain: a classic by Jon Sarno
F. Receive Body Work. Acupuncture, reiki, massage all can help when you are in physical and emotional pain. Find the one that resonates with you, and schedule regular appointments.
My most important advice to those of you who think emotional stress might be exacerbating your physical pain is this: PAY ATTENTION and TRUST YOURSELF. You have intuition for a reason. If something doesn’t feel right, then it isn’t. And you need to address it. Don’t brush it off, because eventually, those stressors will come back to haunt you in the form of more intractable pain.