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How Anxiety Makes Physical Pain Worse

Imagine this: you are going for a leisurely bike ride with some friends. Everything is going wonderfully, the air is crisp, and the sun is shining. Suddenly, your front tire hits a ditch in the path, and you go hurtling towards the concrete. When you hit the pavement, you are met with a sprained wrist. The situation feels overwhelming, and panic ensues. Your breathing quickens and your heart rate goes up. Anxiety overwhelms you and your pain feels insufferable. But when your friend gently tells you to breathe it out and helps you calm down, you realize that the pain is actually quite manageable.

When you are anxious, your senses are in overdrive. This can cause physical pain to feel a lot worse than if you were in a calm state. In addition, when we are stressed on anxious, our bodies tense up, creating tension in the muscles that when held for a long period of time will cause pain to be more noticeable and acute.

Anxiety's Impact on Physical Health

Other common scenarios you may find yourself in is the anticipation of an important interview or a first date. These moments can bring up a uncomfortable feelings in yourchest, because your breathing changes, or your stomach, where we may feel butterflies or a sensation of heaviness. These experiences highlight something we already know intuitively: your physical and emotional bodies are inextricably linked. Not only are they linked to each other but they affect each other is important ways.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people with anxiety are more likely to suffer from chronic pain disorders like migraines or arthritis. In a 2008 study, researchers found that patients who complained of muscle pain, stomach pain, or headaches were 2.5 to 10 times more likely to have a generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or major depression. This raises the question: Why do stress and anxiety influence physical pain?

We already mentioned muscle tension. When we are stressed, our muscles tense up. This can lead to migraines, back pain, shoulder pain, and neck pain. Overall, your body being tense does not equal comfort.

Another reason for pain to intensify die to anxiety has to do with hormones.

Anxiety and stress trigger our stress response, meaning that the hormone cortisol is often being released into our bloodstream. Along with cortisol, adrenaline pumps through our systems in times when we feel anxious. These hormones are great when we truly need them for our physical survival but when chronic, can lead to inflammation. Inflammation is at the core of many of our physical discomfort.

Increased Pain Sensation

Studies overt the last two decades have found that perceived pain increases when anxiety is increased. Through brain imaging, researchers have noted that pain responses intensify for subjects who did not feel prepared for their doctor's visit. Those given information prior to their visit, responded with less pain. This hints at ourbrain’s expectation mechanism playing a big role in how we perceive pain.

Other studies have found that using anxiety reduction techniques before procedures can greatly help pain perception. Here are some ways you can prime your brain for possibly uncomfortable situations to lessen your anxiety and pain perception:

  • Practice deep belly breathing for a few minutes before or during the experience (5-15 minutes)

  • Prepare yourself before a painful experience by visualizing the best possible outcome of your upcoming situation from start to finish

  • Use grounding techniques, like connecting with your senses one at a time so that you are present instead of in your head

  • Remember that discomfort is always temporary and that you have an internal pharmacy to help you better the experience

Pain and anxiety can be difficult to deal with, even more so when they come as a couple. Practicing coping mechanisms and grounding exercises regularly can Rewire Your Brain to feel comfortable in every situation.


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