How Anxiety Can Make Pain Worse

Avatar photo Staff July 26, 2018
back pain

Have you ever been stressed about going on a job interview and felt butterflies in your stomach? Or felt so worried about relationship problems or financial fears that you start to feel nauseous?

It’s no secret that our mental health can have a direct impact on our physical health, yet many people don’t realize just how much anxiety and stress can make our physical pain even worse.

“Stress, fear and anxiety definitely have an impact on someone’s physical health,” says Dr. Mitchell Katz, a chiropractor at the Center for Holistic Medicine. “Stress is that hidden factor that sometimes is difficult to identify but is always lurking in the shadows.”

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people with anxiety often also suffer from chronic pain disorders, such as fibromyalgia, migraines, back pain, and arthritis.

And a 2008 study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety said that patients who complained of muscle pain, headache or stomach pain were 2.5 to 10 times more likely to screen positively for generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder or major depression disorder.

But why, exactly, does stress and anxiety lead to physical pain?

The reason is two-fold: muscle tension and hormones.

According to the American Institute of Stress, when we are stressed, our muscles tense up, causing tension headaches and migraines as well as pain in the neck, back and shoulders.

Stress and anxiety also triggers our hormones to have a stress response, causing them to pump more adrenaline and cortisol into our blood stream. And this leads to inflammation, which has been linked to everything from irritable bowel syndrome to increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, fibromyalgia, arthritis and more.

Sometimes, having physical pain can actually be the cause of people’s anxiety as well, especially when they’re worried about how bad the pain will be, how long it will last and how much it may cost them in medical bills.

That’s one of the reasons Dr. Katz says he always tries to be positive with his patients and focus on how they will be able to get better, rather than amping up their fear.

“Doctors can create anxiety in a patient without even realizing it,” he says.

For example, Dr. Katz says he remembers one time when a teenage girl came into his office who had been told she had a bad case of scoliosis. “She came in hunched over with her shoulders rounded. Her body language basically screamed, ‘I have scoliosis. I’m ruined,’” he said.

Dr. Katz examined her spine, and then said, “I gotta tell you, just looking at you visually, whatever the degree of curvature you might have, I suspect that the x-rays will show it to be extremely minor.”

As soon as she heard the good news, it seemed like her pain miraculously disappeared, all because she wasn’t filled with anxiety anymore. “She left the office a completely different person,” he said.

That’s what made Katz realize how powerful an affect fears can have on our bodies.

“The mind is a very powerful instrument and it can be very helpful and it can be very problematic,” he says.

Want to relieve your pain by reducing your anxiety? Here are a few things to try:

  1. Deep Breathing
    Learning how to breathe deeply from your diaphragm and how to slowly and methodically count your inhales and exhales is a wonderful way of calming the body and reducing stress. Try breathing in for four and breathing out for a count of four, repeating until you feel very relaxed.
  2. Mindfulness Meditation
    Meditation is free, easy to do and you can do it pretty much anywhere, so there’s no excuse not to try it. Simply sit upright on a chair and set your timer for a few minutes. Try to empty your mind of its normal worry and chatter and instead focus on what is going on in the present moment – the sound of a car going by, the sound of the air conditioner, the feeling of your feet on the ground.
  3. Yoga
    Stretching doesn’t just feel good – it is beneficial, too. Stretching helps increase blood flow throughout the body and can help release toxins and reduce inflammation that may be causing pain. Read more about the benefits of yoga.
  4. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
    To do this technique, focus on one part of your body and try to squeeze it as much as you can. Then release it until it is fully relaxed. Then repeat with all of the other parts of your body until you feel completely relaxed.
  5. Schedule an Appointment with a Therapist
    Often, our worries can loom large in our heads, but when we share them with others, we can get a new perspective and feel less anxiety. Talking with a therapist one-on-one is a great way of feeling more grounded and can help relieve both physical and mental pain.