For people suffering from chronic pain, the accompanying stress might seem undefeatable, like a non-negotiable fact of life. But managing it not only improves quality of life from a relaxation standpoint, it can also reduce pain. Worse, the holiday season can make it even worse. Unfortunately, pain and stress do not mix well. Here’s some of the best research-backed methods that can help you ditch the stress this holiday season.
Why managing stress can reduce your pain
Pain and stress compound each other, each making the other worse. Manage stress, and you’ve found one way to possibly decrease pain.
That’s because stress breeds inflammation throughout the body, taxing its systems and creating an environment prone to pain and discomfort. It hijacks the body’s circulatory, respiratory, and immune systems as it revs up to fight or flee an attack. With the body on alert to fight imaginary wars, it has no energy left to heal.
A study published in the journal Brain found that people with chronic pain typically experienced higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Taking action to lower cortisol levels could reduce pain, researchers said.
Researchers also found, in a study published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics that some types of job stress may lead to rheumatoid arthritis. This further underscores the link between pain and stress, and the importance of managing stress to reduce pain. People with high job stress and little control over working conditions experienced a 60% greater risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, researchers found, while people experiencing job strain–a mix between a stressful environment and tension from decision-making–saw a 30% increase.
Researchers hypothesized that chronic stress leads to inflammation and creates conditions ripe for rheumatoid arthritis development.
Stress and inflammation
Meanwhile, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have discovered that chronic stress leads the body to lose its ability to regulate inflammation. Over time, this lost control mechanism can have serious consequences for people dealing with inflammation-related issues, such as pain.
The clear link between stress, inflammation, and pain makes relaxation an important component of a pain management strategy. Through stress-reducing, self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, and letting the small stuff go, people with chronic pain may reduce inflammation, pain, and improve quality of life. If managing stress seems overwhelming, try taking small steps to alleviate tension.
How you can ditch the stress
If you’re ready to ditch the stress this holiday season, there are some easy ways to do it. Heightened times of anxiety probably make you want to run the other way, scream, or do any number of things that would worsen the present situation. Relief is just five minutes away. Try the following simple techniques, or stress busters, to calm frazzled nerves, put things in perspective, and remember that everything will probably be okay.
Use exercise to combat stress
It’s an ironic fact of stress: People who are overworked or exhausted frequently drop exercise from their routines, even though working out is one of the simplest, most effective ways to combat tension. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter if you run a marathon, walk on a treadmill, or practice yoga. Low-impact forms of exercise bestow the same stress-busting benefits that more vigorous methods do. Rigor matters less than frequency.
Picking an exercise you can do at least 3 days a week benefits your health more than hitting it hard once a month.
Pick an activity you enjoy, such as walking, swimming, or water aerobics. Yoga, elliptical machines, and biking also offer numerous health benefits while going easy on the joints and bones. Don’t be afraid to switch it up, either! Variety is the spice of life and exercise. Keeping workouts fun and interesting will make you look forward to fitness, and might even result in a new hobby. You’re much more likely to maintain an exercise regimen if you find workouts pleasurable.
It may be hard to believe that getting your blood flowing reduces stress, but working out remains one of the best ways to improve your mood and dissolve tension.
Why does exercise work so well?
Exercise encourages the body to release endorphins, brain chemicals that make you feel good and forget stress.
Studies show even moderate exercise, including walking on a treadmill, results in the release of endorphins. A study published in Physiology and Behavior found that rats running on special treadmills experienced decreased anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Yoga is another low-impact form of exercise that reduces stress both physically and mentally. A study published in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that yoga not only alleviated tension, but also reduced inflammation in patients with chronic diseases. Results were identified after as little as ten days practicing.
Fitness increases a person’s energy levels, which stress can deplete. Wiped out after a workout, you’re more likely to sleep deeply, even if stress has kept you awake for weeks. Deep breathing during exercise also helps to regulate physical systems, which stress takes over and pushes into overdrive.
Working out forces people to focus on the task at hand and allows them to zone out, creating the freedom to forget about stress for a while. Many times after returning to your worries, you find they’re not so bad anymore. Space creates perspective.
Tap into your breath
Short, choppy breaths often accompany stress or anxiety. Elongating and deepening the breath promotes relaxation and dampens the body’s stress response.
Try this simple breathing exercise next time you feel overwhelmed:
- Breathe out for a count of 4, emptying the lungs of stale oxygen.
- Hold the breath for a count of 4, before slowly breathing in for another count of 4.
- Hold for 4.
- Breathe out for 4, and hold for 4, completing the cycle. Repeat for 5 minutes.
Feel free to experiment with the lengths of the breaths to find a duration that works for you.
Visualize your happy place
Think of a happy place, somewhere you’d like to be that feels peaceful. Maybe it’s the beach or the woods. Maybe you love the mountains or crave garden time. For 5 minutes, close your eyes and visit that happy place.
Feel the sun on your skin and smell the fragrant flowers or trees. Hear the wind rustling through the branches or the waves pounding on the shore. Close your eyes for 5 minutes and imagine yourself here, relaxed and free. If you really want to amp up your relaxation time, or are having trouble focusing, download a nature soundtrack to help with the visualization.
Take a yoga break
Even people who aren’t devoted yogis can experience stress reduction benefits from moving and breathing for 5 minutes. Several poses are particularly helpful for reducing stress. A beneficial posture involves lying on your back with your feet up against the wall. Breathe deeply for a few minutes, feeling the gentle hamstring stretch and relaxing into the floor.
If you’d like a little movement, try this short yoga sequence:
- Stretch your arms overhead, fingers interlaced, pointer fingers up to the sky.
- Breathe in and reach over to the right, feeling the stretch in your side body. Breathe out, and return to center. Repeat on the other side.
- Lower down to the floor, lying on your stomach and clasping your hands behind your back. Slowly, carefully lift your shoulders off the ground and hold for a few seconds. Many times, stress causes the shoulders to hunch forward. This pose reverses that tendency and strengthens the back muscles.
- Finally, stretch your hips. Options include double pigeon, in which you sit on the floor, left foot stacked over your right, creating a triangle with your legs. For an easier hip stretch, sit in a chair, placing your right ankle over your left knee. Sit straight, or bend forward if you can, breathing for about 30 seconds before switching sides, right foot on top of left.