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Stress is a part of life. We’ve all experienced it at one point or another. Whether that’s the result of a high-pressure job, poor health, money problems or an unhappy relationship, stress can often feel like the enemy – like a battle that cannot be won or fled. Pair this with chronic pain and you’ve got a vicious cycle.

What is stress and how does it affect the body?

The Mental Health Foundation defines stress as ‘the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure’. Stress causes the body to produce hormones that trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response – your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten and blood pressure climbs.

In the short term, this helps us tackle dangerous situations – real or perceived – and push through fear or pain. However, high levels of prolonged stress, where the body is stuck in that ‘fight or flight’ mode, can have a negative impact on our physical and emotional health.

Stress symptoms

Emotional symptoms of stress: Stress affects our emotions, mood and behaviour in unpredictable ways. You may experience constant worrying, low self-esteem, feeling easily agitated or overwhelmed and difficulty concentrating or relaxing.

Physical symptoms of stress: Stress can affect all parts of the body – from the skin, bones, muscles and nerves to the lungs and heart. Low energy, headaches, chest pain, high blood pressure, upset stomach, low sex drive and muscle tension are just some of the physical symptoms associated with stress.

Research shows that during a stress response, your body sends resources elsewhere, which, in turn, weakens the responses of the immune system. Over a long period of time, this can break down the protective barriers, making you more susceptible to diseases and viruses.

Stress and chronic pain: what’s the connection?

Stress and pain are closely linked. Not only can chronic pain be a source of stress, but modern research suggests that stress can contribute to chronic pain. How, do you ask? Well, the primary stress hormone cortisol is a powerful anti-inflammatory. When the body experiences a prolonged or exaggerated stress response – being stuck in that ‘fight or flight’ mode – it may provoke cortisol dysfunction, leading to increased inflammation and pain.

Take arthritis, for example. Inflammation is what fuels many forms of the disease. So, when you’re exposed to long-term stress, that inflammation can become even more destructive. On the other side of the coin, the constant pain, fatigue, worry and poor sleep arthritis inflicts can be a source of stress or add to it. It’s a vicious cycle that can seem impossible to break.

Breaking the cycle

Have faith. There are ways to manage stress from chronic pain and vice versa, chronic pain from stress. It all centres around understanding your condition, properly planning, keeping fit and healthy and controlling your stress levels.

Understand the pain cycle: The first step to breaking the pain-stress cycle is understanding the pain cycle itself – what is causing your pain, how your pain works and why you need to make changes to your behaviours. Pain isn’t always straightforward. Being knowledgeable about your condition will give you the motivation and confidence you need to take control of it.

Have a plan in case of a flare-up: Maintaining a routine is a great way to manage chronic pain and stress. However, it’s important to be prepared for a potential flare-up. Know your triggers, try to limit or avoid them and have coping strategies in place. This could be anything from pain relief medication to alternative therapies such as mindfulness, aromatherapy, acupuncture and biofeedback.

Eat well: We talk about it all the time, but a balanced diet works wonders on all aspects of our physical and mental health. There are lots of anti-inflammatory foods to explore, which you can factor into your meals, including oily fish, nuts, berries, collard greens and spices like turmeric, cayenne, ginger and garlic.

Exercise: Safe, regular exercise has the power to relieve pain, boost mood, increase energy levels and enhance relaxation – a win-win when it comes to the chronic pain and chronic stress cycle. Stretching exercises can decrease muscle tension while strengthening exercises can make everyday activities easier to engage in. Walking, swimming, water aerobics, yoga and tai chi are all good options, and there are lots of accessible home exercises too.

Distraction techniques: Focusing on your pain can exacerbate it, leading to increased stress. Although distracting yourself from the pain can be extremely difficult, try focusing on something else – exercise, socialisation or simply the things you enjoy most, such as music, reading and other hobbies. There have even been studies into how virtual reality can be used as a distraction therapy to reduce pain signals.

Explore products: If you suffer from chronic pain, simple tasks can feel impossible to conquer. Thankfully, there is an increasing variety of specially developed products to make everyday life easier – from arthritis-friendly kettles to comfortable, extra-grip key turners. For fast-acting pain relief, try our To Better Days active joint patches. Formulated using a unique, patented combination of dextrose and vitamin D, they can be easily applied to the skin to soothe discomfort and treat the damaged nerve.

When it comes to managing stress and chronic pain, there are lots of routes to go down. It’s important to remember that what works well for one person might not work so well for another, and that’s okay.

Have your say on the topic by visiting our Facebook community page Together For Better Days. It’s an open, judgement-free environment featuring holistic health tips for people living with chronic pain, as well as those supporting them.

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