How can you best manage stress from dealing with chronic pain?
Dealing with stress on a daily basis is a difficult task. Add chronic pain, mental illness or both to the mix and it’s becomes almost an impossible feat. However, it’s important to remember that stress management is possible even when suffering from such conditions.
Ann-marie has kindly contributed this incredibly important post to help others suffering from stress due to chronic pain. Ann-Marie D’Arcy-Sharpe is a thirty three-year-old freelance writer and blogger. She lives with bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia and arthritis, and knows all too well the stress that accompanies chronic pain.
“I write for Pathways Pain Relief, a chronic pain relief app and blog. The app is created by pain patients and backed by the latest pain science. We use mind body therapies to help pain patients achieve natural, long lasting pain relief.”
10 ways to manage stress with chronic pain.
The experience of living with chronic pain can be very stressful. Being in pain in itself is hard to cope with, never mind combining that with trying to function despite your symptoms! It’s tough going and stress levels can quickly rise.
I live with fibromyalgia, arthritis and bipolar disorder, so managing my chronic illness and mental health can be a delicate balancing act. Doing my best to keep my stress levels low and controlling my emotions is key to being able to function and to enjoy my life. It’s far easier said than done, and it’s not always perfect, but it is possible!
So why is it vital to keep stress levels low? Well, not only does keeping stress under control help you to feel better emotionally, stress actually causes and worsens chronic pain! The body is not designed to be stuck in a prolonged state of ‘fight or flight’, and when this happens it can really take its toll.
This study explains that, “a prolonged or exaggerated stress response may perpetuate cortisol dysfunction, widespread inflammation, and pain.” Essentially, the stress hormones released during prolonged periods become detrimental to your body, causing muscle tension, inflammation, increased chronic pain, a lower immune system and a whole host of other problems.
As daunting as this sounds, there are plenty of ways to manage your stress levels.
1. Talking about how you feel
Getting worries off your chest can help you to see things from a clearer perspective. You could share your feelings with a therapist, a loved one or even a hotline if you would feel more comfortable talking to someone anonymously.
Sharing your problems with someone you trust can feel as though a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. Whether they are just there to listen quietly or are able to offer you some useful advice, it can be a great step in actively reducing your stress levels.
2. Seeking treatment for your chronic pain
Since chronic pain can cause stress within itself, seeking effective treatment for your chronic pain can help to reduce stress levels. There are many scientifically proven treatments and self-management techniques available which can help pain patients reduce their symptoms, regain their functioning and overcome their pain. Some of the treatments available include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychical therapy and graded motor imagery.
You can seek treatment from your doctor, privately or online through remote treatment. Make sure you do your research and figure out what is best for you. You can find out all of your treatment options here.
3. Practicing self care.
Self care is so important in reducing stress levels. This doesn’t just mean setting aside time to relax, although this is vital too. Self care refers to, “The actions that individuals take for themselves, on behalf of and with others in order to develop, protect, maintain and improve their health, wellbeing or wellness.” For example keeping up with regular personal hygiene, taking any prescribed medications and setting boundaries with others in your life just to name a few.
4. Eating well.
It might sound cliche but eating a healthy, balanced diet really helps your body and your mind to function properly. This becomes even more important when you have extra health challenges like chronic pain. This doesn’t mean you need to ‘diet’ or deprive yourself of treats: it’s about finding a healthy balance that is sustainable for the long term.
Exercise can be a great way to reduce stress. During exercise hormones known as endorphins are released which help to boost your mood, make you feel more positive and reduce your perception of pain at the same time! Levels of serotonin (a hormone which helps us to maintain a stable mood among other vital jobs) are also increased during exercise. Not only that but levels cortisol (the stress hormone) are reduced, meaning exercise actively helps you to reduce stress.
You may be understandably skeptical when you read about exercise and its benefits for those with chronic pain. We’re often told that ‘if we just exercise more our chronic pain will be cured’. As much as exercise isn’t a quick fix, and of course chronic pain makes it difficult to exercise, the benefits can be well worth the effort. With the right treatment and a gradual approach, you find ways to exercise that work for you, building them up over time.
This study discovered that throughout three separate occasions, participants who engaged in yoga, “were significantly less anxious, tense, depressed, angry, fatigued, and confused after class than before on all three occasions.”
You’ll likely have heard about mindfulness all over the internet, but there really is a reason that mindfulness is talked about so much. Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment. Instead of allowing your mind to think about the past or worry about the future, you focus on what is happening here and now.
Mindfulness often involves meditation, breathing exercises or visualization. However, mindfulness can also be incorporated into daily tasks to help you stay in a calm mindset.
Once you get the hang of mindfulness, it can be an incredibly valuable tool in reducing stress levels and helping you to control your emotions.
An article from the American Psychological Association discusses the evidence behind mindfulness, and explains that, “findings are consistent with evidence that mindfulness meditation increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negative affect.”
If you’d like to learn more about mindfulness and the science behind why it can help you (and how you can realistically use mindfulness in your daily life), check out our comprehensive guide to mindfulness.
7. Dealing with stressors in your life.
If there are things in your life which you know are causing you stress, dealing with them head on can actively reduce your stress levels. This may take time and hard work, but figuring out how to deal with stressors in a productive way can be invaluable.
8. Trying to maintain a routine.
Creating a routine can allow you to feel more stable emotionally and in control of your life. Part of this routine should be a good sleep schedule. While this can be tough when you live with chronic pain, it’s important to try to maintain as much regular sleep as possible. Things that I find helpful include going to bed and getting up at the same time, regardless of how I’ve slept; limiting naps during the day as much as possible, and keeping active to wear my body out.
When you feel stress levels rising, a great way of coping is distraction. Keeping your mind and body busy helps you to shift your focus. Whether it’s putting some of your favourite music on and singing along (and even dancing if you can), going for a walk, or doing some arts and crafts: whatever lifts your mood and helps you to improve your mindset is what matters.
10. Being kind to yourself.
Remember that if you are trying your best to manage your stress levels, that’s all you can do and that is more than good enough! If things don’t go to plan, that doesn’t mean you have failed. Especially right now, things are tough for all of us, so it becomes even more important to be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. Encourage yourself. If something goes wrong, you can try again tomorrow.
- Daphne M. Davis, PhD, and Jeffrey A. Hayes, PhD, (2012), “What are the benefits of mindfulness?” APA Office of CE in Psychology, Vol 43, No. 7
- Bonnie G. Berger & David R. Owen, (1987), “Stress Reduction and Mood Enhancement in Four Exercise Modes: Swimming, Body Conditioning, Hatha Yoga, and Fencing”. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport , Volume 59, 1988 – Issue 2
- The Self Care Forum, (2020), “What do we mean by self care and why is it good for people?”
- Kara E. Hannibal, Mark D. Bishop, (2014), “Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation”. Physical Therapy, Volume 94, Issue 12, 1 December 2014, Pages 1816–1825