We’re an anxious nation right now – and it’s hardly surprising. here are so many uncertainties – particularly in the light of Covid – affecting just about every aspect of our lives.
If we’re not worrying about our own health, we’re fretting about the wellbeing of our friends and relatives – and many of us are concerned about our jobs and financial security too.
So it’s no coincidence that along with the anxiety, the physical problem such as digestive disorders and circulatory diseases like high blood pressure are also proliferating – along with increased levels of pain.
Patients with chronic health disorders like arthritis and sciatica often tell me that their pain is worse when they’re stressed. However, they’re reluctant to admit it in case anyone thinks it’s ‘all in their head’. I’m always happy to tell them that there are very real physical reasons why their body produces pain when it is under mental or physical pressure.
Gone are the days when doctors presumed that any relationship between anxiety and pain was a purely psychological issue. As we’ve researched more and more into how the brain and nervous system functions and influences the body, we have learned that it has biological mechanisms too.
It’s now accepted that excessive and ongoing anxiety is a very potent cause of pain– not just in the back, head, jaw, neck and shoulder, but just about anywhere else in the body.
And as I said earlier, anxiety can also lead to exacerbated pain in chronic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, low back pain and fibromyalgia.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the stress reaction, particularly in times of uncertainty, leads to a boost in stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This results in an immune response that increases our levels of inflammation. If the strain continues unabated, these levels rise further, the nervous system becomes more sensitive and we can often feel extra pain in almost any region of the anatomy.
Being in constant fight-or-flight mode also drives the brain to react by bracing the body for a moment that actually never happens. The tension produced impacts our different muscles and if allowed to continue for a lengthy period, turns the tightness into actual pain.
It’s also likely that people under stress won’t be getting enough good quality sleep which can also add to the issue.
So what can you do about it? Just how can you break the anxiety – pain cycle? Living with anxiety-related pain can be hard but there is help out there.
Get expert advice
Your GP should be the first port of call, to eliminate any serious cause of pain. They may refer you for specialist help, prescribe medication or even recommend CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), all of which are useful tools.
When conventional medicine offers no respite then people will often turn to complementary treatments that don’t have side effects, such as manual therapies like Osteopathy, Physiotherapy and Massage – or other disciplines such as Hypnotherapy and Reflexology.
I may be slightly biased, but Osteopathy has many advantages when dealing with pain, particularly when anxiety-induced. Osteopathy is a safe, drug-free, holistic treatment that uses a wide variety of gentle hands-on techniques that concentrate on releasing the tension, optimising function and improving mobility. We will also provide useful lifestyle, health and exercise advice if needed.
Just a few moments a day following a calming, breathing regime can help stress, anxiety and panic. It can also be done just about anywhere and could reap benefits if you do it regularly as part of a daily routine.
The NHS gives a good technique on their website
Meditation has many health benefits – and with practice becomes an easy habit to maintain. Putting in the effort to learn how to do it properly can transform your experience of stress. If you find it difficult, one tip is to start small and gradually work up into longer sessions. There are several different ways to do it and you can find various techniques online – YouTube is often a good source.
Exercise and stretch more
It may seem counterproductive at first but forcing yourself to move your body more can actually help. Physical activity releases endorphins which lessen pain and relieve stress. You don’t have to run marathons, just aim to be active, even if it’s in a small way, every day. Yoga and Pilates are particularly helpful ways to increase physical activity whilst promoting strength, flexibility, balance and relaxation.
Eat a healthy diet
Everyone knows what this entails. More fruit, vegetables and whole grains and fewer processed foods. Long term healthy eating can improve your general health, help you feel more energetic and enable you to lose weight – which takes pressure from your spine and joints.