Can prolonged stress affect your pain and healing? Research now suggests that it can, particularly with chronic pain. If you suffer from ongoing pain you may have noticed this relationship yourself. Many people know that their pain is worse when they are stressed but they don't know why.
Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, this is the where we can move into "fight, flight or freeze" mode. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for keeping us safe when we are in danger, however it can be activated for prolonged periods and many of us lack the skills to return control to our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for helping us to "rest and digest".
How would this affect pain?
During this state muscles become tense and ready for action, the nervous system is extra sensitive to stimulus, blood pressure is raised and we are more likely to notice and have negative thoughts. Tense muscles can become tired and sore or put extra stress on other structures, causing pain and irritation. Often when in a stressed state our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, even when not really exerting ourselves, such as while sitting in an office.
Use your breathing to recover.
An effective way to help your body return control to the parasympathetic nervous system is to consciously change your breathing. One method is to hold your breath for as long as you can, once you relieve your breath your body senses that a threat has passed and can return to a more relaxed state.
Another commonly used technique is box breathing. To do this, breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold again for four and repeat. Do this for a few minutes until you start to feel more relaxed and calm.
Show your body that you are safe.
Other activities that can help your body to relax include yoga, going for a swim or having a shower, or doing some intense exercise where your heart rate is raised.
Speak to your physiotherapist for more information on this topic and tips to help you relax during the day.