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Is Chronic Pain Linked to Our Emotions?

Life can be exhausting sometimes with all the stress of modern living. A new study reveals that our emotional stress can cause a noticeable decline in our physical health which, in turn, may lead to us experiencing physical pain. While the mind and body connection is not a new concept, it takes a lot for some individuals to decide to find out where their pain is coming from, or why it’s there. How many times have you woken up with a bad backache and thought ‘I must have slept wrong’ or ‘I picked up something too heavy.’ We often suffer from aches and pains, try to ignore them, self-diagnose, and hope they go away.

Pain and Emotional Health

Dr. Susan Babel is a psychologist specializing in trauma-induced depression. In a recent study, she notes, “Studies have shown that chronic physical pain might not only be caused by physical injury but also by stress and emotional issues.”

“Many people are already familiar with the fact that emotional stress can lead to stomach aches, irritable bowel syndrome, and headaches, but might not know that it can also cause other physical complaints and even chronic pain. One logical reason for this: studies have found that the more anxious and stressed people are, the tenser and constricted their muscles are, over time causing the muscles to become fatigued and inefficient.”

While stress is known to take a toll on our physical health, Dr. Babel also believes that chronic pain is caused by our emotional issues.

Traumatic Events and Pain

How do traumatic events relate to chronic pain? Pain experts report that experiencing a traumatic event does impact our pain. Approximately 15-30% of patients with chronic pain are reported to also have PTSD.

When faced with a traumatic event, the body’s nervous system goes into survival mode. After the event is over, the body may have difficulty reverting back to a normal, relaxed mode. If your body stays in survival mode, stress hormones remain elevated. Cortisol is constantly released, causing an increase in blood pressure and blood sugar. This has a negative effect on the body’s immune system, in effect preventing it from healing. When the body is in a state of constant distress, physical symptoms are bound to manifest.

New Trauma Triggering Old Trauma

If an individual experienced a traumatic event in the past, a new injury can trigger the old event (or the body’s memory of it). This process increases the pain of the new injury.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a well-known trauma researcher, explains; “Research has shown that, under ordinary conditions, many traumatized people, including rape victims, battered women and abused children, have a fairly good psychosocial adjustment. However, they do not respond to stress the way other people do. Under pressure, they may feel (or act) as if they were traumatized all over again.

When memories of an old event are triggered, the body’s nervous system revives old pain sensations. This ‘reliving the trauma’ effect brings additional pain sensations from the nervous system.

Emotional & Physical Pain Connection

Even if the body has processed a physically painful event, the mind may still be dealing with the event. If the mind feels there is a lack of resolution, the nervous system may still be triggering stress hormones, in effect keeping the body in survival mode.

Maggie Phillips, the author of Reversing Chronic Pain, writes: “Whether or not trauma was connected to the event or condition that originated their pain, having a chronic pain condition is traumatizing in and of itself.”

Summary of Findings

Dr. Susan Babel concludes in the article, although one might not be aware of the lingering effect of the trauma, or believe that the traumatic event has been put behind them, “the body could be clinging to unresolved issues.”

So, the next time you feel physical pain, try to stop and think about what’s on your mind, what you’re holding onto, or even what you’re suppressing. Pain can act as a warning sign that something needs to be resolved, so listen to it closely.

Mindy Marantz, director of the Healthwell clinic in San Francisco, suggests focusing on alignment in the body, as well as a posture that supports organized alignment. She advises to address potential inflammation and provides strategies to help calm the nervous system such as Craniosacral therapy or Feldenkrais Movement Re-education. “These both will help ‘stoke’ the lymphatic system, which in turn helps diminish the effects of fluids that pool as a result of the injury. Lymphatic massage as well as compression wraps and education help bring this often overlooked pathway to recovery to patients’ attention.”

Regular exercise is also a great way to mobilize muscles and stimulate the lymph system to bring oxygen to injured muscles. Since trauma and chronic pain are frequently related, you might also consider trying a combination of psychotherapy, physical therapy, or other doctor-recommended treatments.

Article Source: Psychology Today – The Connections Between Emotional Stress, Trauma and Physical Pain