How we feel pain Part 3 – The impact of stress

Imagine that you’re sitting in a room with a group of people. You’re all sitting on an identical chair and talking to each other. After about half an hour of sitting some of the people in the room may start shifting around in their seat and look a bit uncomfortable. After an hour or so, more people will feel uncomfortable and people will begin to move about and change position. As time passes people start shifting around more and some people may even have to stand up due to the discomfort.


What is happening here and what has this got to do with stress and pain?


Whilst you are sitting, your brain is collecting information from all over your body; from your muscles, skin, joints and organs and it makes decisions about the information it’s receiving. If it doesn’t like the information it’s receiving, it may do something about it. This is how we avoid danger and protect ourselves. In this instance, if the brain feels like too much tension is building up in the muscles or that your cardiovascular system needs to work a bit harder, it will do something to make that happen. So what can it do? Well it could cause some discomfort to make you move around and to get the cardio-vascular system working and to stretch out your muscles. The pain is switched on to motivate you to move, it’s not happy with the information and feels you need protecting. This is part of the homeostatic mechanism, in a similar way to when we feel thirsty it feels uncomfortable or if you sit somewhere cold you may feel uncomfortable. The pain is there to make you act.


So what has stress got to do with it? Well the brain can respond to stress in the same way. If there is a build-up of stress in your life or you are causing yourself a lot of stress, the brain can trigger pain to try and protect you. This pain makes you slow down and take things a little easier than maybe you have been doing.


During an acutely stressful event, like being attacked by a tiger (not a common scenario in the UK I know), the brain will release cortisol to activate the fight and flight response. Muscle activation and heart rate will increase to get you ready to run for fight (The fight orPicture1 flight response). Once the attack is over and you have survived, the brain and nervous system will deactivate the release of cortisol. Otherwise you would be kept in a hyperactive state where you would find it difficult to relax and slow down your heart rate.


So the release of cortisol is good for a short period but if it carries on for too long it will overload the system and cause increased activity in the nervous system. It causes hyperactivity in the central nervous system that causes normal nerve pathways to change how they perceive information so that normal information now becomes painful. As I explained in a previous blog, our brain and nervous system are adapting and changing all the time. When you feel stressed your nervous system naturally becomes more protective of you. These adaptions have been shown in numerous studies on humans and in animals that have been put under continuous stress. They become more sensitive to pressure and temperature and can tolerate less than they previously could.


The tiger scenario is not one we encounter frequently, we generally do not encounter too many acutely stressful situations, instead in modern life, 99% of the tigers we run from are in our heads. That is to say that we produce most of our own stress and often this stress continues over longer periods. For example, pressures that we place on ourselves to
do well, difficulty finding a work life balance, feeling the need to be liked all the time, putting others before ourselves, relationship problems and financial pressures all lead to stress. There may also be external stress like caring for an elderly relative or the death of someone close to you. All these lead to an over-active nervous system, difficulties relaxing and can lead to pain.

If we don’t slow down or look after ourselves the unconscious parts of your brain might take matters into it’s own hands and decide that enough is enough and that it needs to do something to protect you. In the same way that it causes discomfort to make you move from the chair, it may cause pain to protect you from stressful situations or the pressure you are putting on yourself. If you think about it, pain is a great way of making you slow down and take time out.


Next time you feel some pain have a think about what is happening in your life or how you have been feeling recently. It may be that your brain is trying to tell you something. You might need to slow down or stop putting yourself under so much pressure. There are ways to help reduce stress and stop it from causing pain and health problems. Get in touch if you want to learn how.

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