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Stress and chronic pain are far more intertwined than we realize. Stress itself is a normal part of life. We feel stressed when we face difficult situations at home or at work, or when we have a lot of things to deal with. However, facing a huge amount of stress that is prolonged can be harmful to our health. Over time, it can lead to pain and inflammation — or in worst cases, death — that can keep us from doing the things we want or need to do.
Fortunately, there are ways that can help reduce both stress and chronic pain. If you’re stuck in the cycle, this article is for you.
The Cycle of Stress and Chronic Pain
Pain and stress have a similar effect on the body: both can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, your breathing can become fast and shallow, and your muscles can tighten. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), about 80% of adults experience pain at least once in their lifetime.
Neck pain, shoulder pain, and back are the most common causes of job disability worldwide, making them a part of the costliest medical problems. Most people experience acute pain, which lasts as little as a few days or a few weeks. There are others who experience subacute pain that can last for 4 to 12 weeks. The worst kind of pain to experience is chronic pain, which lasts longer than 12 weeks and does not respond to medication. One doesn’t even have to be injured to experience chronic pain.
Those who develop chronic pain can be very limited in what they can do in their daily lives. It can affect numerous activities and aspects of life. Some stop exercising, some become less productive at work, others become more exhausted, and there are also people who develop other medical problems like depression.
On the other hand, stress is the body’s warning system and a perceived ability to cope with an unpleasant situation. It alerts us to what is happening in our environment and helps us get a handle on things, functioning in a similar way as acute pain that lets us know that something is wrong. Stress puts our bodies into a “fight or flight” mode, and a healthy amount of it helps keep us safe from adverse situations that may be present.
However, when there is too much stress, it becomes harmful and negative. Our body can remain in a constant state of tension, putting an immense toll on our health. Often, stress is described as both the cause and effect of pain. When you’re in pain, you may feel stressed. When you’re stressed, you exacerbate the pain that you’re already feeling. This starts a vicious cycle of stress and chronic pain. Persistent stress of chronic pain can affect the nervous and immune systems.
Fortunately, this cycle of stress and pain can be broken by stress management techniques and relaxation. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that mindfulness-based therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, two approaches that focus on relaxation exercises, were both effective in treating chronic pain. These techniques are crucial for dealing with chronic pain as they can calm your mind, lower the number of stress hormones, relax your muscles, and elevate your sense of well-being.
Relaxation Techniques to Manage Chronic Pain
While relaxation techniques won’t fully cure you of chronic pain, they can greatly help in getting it under control. Relaxation helps in loosening tight muscles and slows down your heart rate and breathing too. When you’re relaxed, your mind is calm and focused elsewhere. In short, being relaxed distracts you from the pain. Focusing on sensations other than pain allows you to “close the gate” to pain. By de-stressing, you’re able to counteract the downward pain spiral. Here are some relaxation tips and tricks that you can try.
Slowing down your breathing can help you relax and may help ease your pain. Focusing on your breath causes your body to relax. In addition to deep breathing, you can also incorporate meditation as the soothing power of repetition can ease tension and tightness away from your body.
A good deep breathing technique to start with is foursquare breathing. You can sit, stand, or lie down for this exercise. Breathe deeply so that your abdomen expands and contracts like a balloon with each breath. Slowly inhale to a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale to a count of four, and then hold to a count of four. Repeat this cycle 5 times and see how you feel.
Practicing yoga regularly has several benefits. It can give you an interrupted relaxation session that may last up to an hour or two. Yoga also teaches you breathing techniques that you can use to calm yourself in your daily life. Moreover, practicing yoga increases strength and flexibility which can help relieve the chronic pain you experience. Check out this article for yoga exercises that you can do at home or in the office.
Most individuals who suffer from chronic pain tend to avoid or feel that they cannot exercise. However, a lot of them aren’t aware that doing gentle exercises on a regular basis can actually help with chronic pain. Walking, swimming, stretching, and even physical therapy with a medical professional can help get your body moving and reduce the pain in your daily life, allowing you to leave the cycle of stress and pain.
Listen to Music or Sing a Song
Warm-up those vocal cords and sing your heart out as singing can help release tension accumulated in the body. Try singing a song that makes you happy and if you can, belt it out at the top of your lungs. If you can’t belt it out, simply humming your favorite tune can also help relieve stress.
Additionally, listening to relaxing music, cheerful music, or your favorite songs is bound to help put your mind at ease and help you cope with stress. Pairing up listening to music with a nice, calm walk can make you feel refreshed, and you can repeat this as often as needed.
Get a Massage
Having a massage every few weeks is a great way to ease muscle tension. Plus, you’ll get pampered at the same time. Massage helps relax not only the body but also your mind. A great massage therapist can also aid in finding your problem spots and getting them under control.
Finding ways to relax can help you manage your stress and chronic pain to a level that you can control. Some people may find that relaxation techniques are enough to help them be at ease, while others may find that a combination of relaxation and medication works better for them. There is no “correct” form of pain relief; figure out and choose whichever method works best for you to ease your pain in the long run.