Stress and pain are an unwelcome but inseparable pair. When you’re in pain, it stresses you out. When you’re under stress, it can cause or further aggravate pain. And around and around the cycle goes. So it makes sense then that taking steps toward helping one also helps the other. But what can you do to manage stress? Let’s find out.
What is stress?
The first step toward minimizing pain by keeping your stress levels in check is understanding the science behind all of it.
When presented with a stressful situation, your body’s nervous system automatically initiates your “fight or flight” response, which includes a release of adrenaline and other chemicals to keep us alert and help us avoid danger. In emergencies, that physical response can be helpful — even life-saving. But when sustained over a long period of time, stress leads to a condition called distress, which disrupts the body’s normal processes and causes a wide range of unhealthy symptoms.
What are signs of high stress?
You’re likely already familiar with how stress manifests itself in your life, but there may be symptoms you experience that you’re not aware are linked to stress.
In mental and emotional terms, stress is a feeling of intense pressure caused by demands being placed upon you, whether they are external or internal. Maybe you feel like your boss is dumping a lot of extra work on you. Maybe finances are tight. Maybe you want to perform well on an upcoming test or presentation. Regardless of what’s causing the strain, stress can alter your thoughts, feelings and behavior, leaving you:
- Lacking self-confidence
According to the American Psychological Association’s report “Stress in America”, these mental and emotional changes can lead to:
- Over- or under-eating
- Substance abuse
- Angry outbursts
- Depression or the urge to withdraw from your friends and family
Physical symptoms may include:
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Trouble concentrating
- A racing pulse
- Diminished sex drive
- Excessive perspiration
- Pain in the chest, back, neck or jaw
How to manage stress to manage pain
While some connections between stress and pain require more research, others are more definitive. For example, the American Heart Association admits that while the exact nature of the link between the two isn’t completely clear, the damage an increased heart rate and blood pressure can do to your artery walls is very real.
The good news is, reducing the level of stress in your life will not only prevent all the above conditions from piling up on top of the pain you may already be experiencing, it could also improve your pain symptoms. Here are a few actions you can easily take today to lower your stress levels and start reaping the benefits of a more balanced body and calmer state of mind. There are options for any person, at any ability.
1. Mindful meditation
Of course mindful meditation would be near the top of the list. Meditation is a skill that takes practice, but the practice itself is calming. Create a quiet, comfortable place in your home where you can shut yourself off from distractions easily. Start with just five or ten minutes a day. You can also meditate when you start to feel stress taking over.
Like meditation, yoga has a calming effect on the body. This Indian practice combines body movement with mindfulness and each pose can help you bring balance to your life overall. The great part about yoga is that it is adaptive and many people with physical challenges find they can perform many of the movements even if they need special accommodations.
3. Deep breathing exercises
Breathing is a part of both mindful meditation and yoga, but it doesn’t have to be done in conjunction with either of these formal practices. When you start to feel stress in your life take a few moments to focus on your breathing. Breathe deeply filling up your lungs and expanding your diaphragm. Hold the breath for just a moment before slowly and deliberately exhaling. Even a few deep breaths can help ground and center you.
Since breathing is so integral for stress management there is wisdom in employing pleasant scents to help you stay calm and stress-free. There are many ways to infuse scent into your daily life, such as with essential oils or incense. Smells that help reduce stress include lavender, rose, chamomile, and vanilla. Also, since smell is strongly connected to memory if there is a scent induces positive feelings for you specifically, don’t be afraid to use it to help you relax.
Yes, laughter really is the best medicine. It isn’t just that laughter makes you feel good; there is scientific evidence that it improves your health and relieves stress. It increases the body’s intake of oxygen rich air and stimulates organs such as your heart and lungs. It also stops the body’s natural stress responses and helps you feel calmer, faster. It lowers your blood pressure, too.
So watch a comedy, read a funny book, and spend time with family and friends who have positive attitudes.
One great daily ritual that is often overlooked when it comes to stress is enjoying a nice cup of tea. It is no surprise that one of the main studies regarding black tea and stress relief was conducted by the British, a culture who has made tea drinking a priority for centuries. While tea itself helps to relieve stress, the ritual of drinking tea can also have a positive effect. Unlike coffee which is a pour-and-drink hot beverage, tea takes preparation and requires drinkers to slow down for just a moment out of their day.
7. Spiritual community
Joining a religious community can also help provide much needed stress relief in your life. In fact, it doesn’t matter at all which religious or spiritual beliefs you subscribe to but simply being involved with a community can help people feel a sense of calmness when under stressful situations. Compassion, community, and support are all part of most spiritual communities.
8. Massage therapy
If you want a hands-off relaxation experience book an appointment at a local spa or with a massage therapist to spend 30 minutes to an hour being pampered. Massage lowers blood pressure, stimulates blood flow, and promotes a sense of calm. Go with your spouse or partner or a great friend to make it a social event, which can also help reduce stress.
In a culture where sex can seem like it is being sold through all forms of media, we actually talk very little about healthy sex. While sex itself actually increases the body’s stress response for a very short period of time, frequent sex will reduce it overall. That’s right, the more you make love the less stressed you’ll feel in general.
Don’t worry; sex isn’t the only physical contact that can reduce stress. Hugging also helps calm the body and relieve tension. And, the best part is, you can hug anyone you trust and it will make you both feel better. In fact, you’ve probably been in a tense situation where hugging it out did actually help solve the problem. So don’t be afraid to do it more often.
Fido or Fluffy are also excellent stress relievers. Simply sharing your home with a pet can reduce your stress levels overall. It’s hard to stay mad at your boss when your cat cuddles up with you and purrs or your dog looks at you with those puppy eyes. People with pets are found to have lower blood pressure overall.
Do you love to be creative? Painting, sculpting, drawing, writing, or playing music all help people control and reduce their stress levels. There is an entire field of therapy dedicated to using art to promote emotional and mental wellbeing. If you find yourself feeling stressed out, take a step back and start an art project that you’ve always wanted to try.
Some of the top advice for people dealing with workplace stress is to get out of the office and go for a walk. Fresh air, physical activity, and removing yourself from a stressful situation can all help someone recover some of their composure. This can apply to any aspects of life. If you feel like you need to step away, take a stroll to help you gather your thoughts.
Like with walking, any form of exercise can help you blow off steam and manage stress. Research has shown that even one exercise session can improve the body’s antioxidant system and, in turn, reduce stress. Adding regular workouts to your routine can help you manage stress levels in your life.
If you’re capable of incorporating physical activity into your life, it can be a powerful weapon in the battle against stress. Not only is it a welcome distraction, it’s also been shown to relieve tension and improve sleep, focus and concentration. For individuals who are feeling helpless or like they have little control over their circumstances, exercise can provide a feeling of empowerment.
And here’s the big one: When you exercise, your body produces endorphins — “feel-good” neurotransmitters that increase feelings of overall well-being and happiness.
According to the same APA report, more than 40% of all adults say they lie awake at night because of stress. Consistently getting enough shut-eye is crucial for:
- Maintaining well-functioning immune and endocrine systems
- Reducing pain
- Fighting fatigue
- Keeping your metabolism stable
Studies have also shown that people who slept well after having just undergone surgery required lower-level painkillers or smaller dosages. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults require seven to nine hours of sleep per night, so do what you must to get those hours.
16. Slow down
If you think it could help, and if it’s at all possible, try taking a few things off your plate to manage stress. When looking at your day planner induces anxiety, you should start getting accustomed to saying “no.” Be protective of your time, particularly the time you reserve for your family and for yourself, and minimize multitasking.
If you find multitasking is the only way you can fulfill all your obligations, then you have too many to-do’s and it’s time to cut some loose. Bonus: Cutting down your engagements will help you make time for all the stress-relieving actions above.
17. Healthy eating
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet complete with antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients is not only important for aiding your body in healing and boosting immunity, but many foods also have pain-alleviating properties.
For example, small amounts of caffeine can help reduce headaches by improving blood flow in the brain. Do your research and discuss with your doctor the foods you can incorporate into your diet — as well as foods you should avoid — to ease your pain on a day-to-day basis.
Sharing what you’re thinking, feeling and experiencing — including your pain — can help to eliminate some of your stress, whether this means keeping a daily written record, or regularly calling a friend. Keeping your thoughts and feelings bottled up inside will only serve to increase your blood pressure, inhibit sleep and weaken the body in other ways.
Take a step today toward relief by creating a stress reduction plan for yourself that incorporates some of these actions. And see your doctor so he or she can discuss additional considerations and check for other potential stressors.
What are some things you do to manage stress in your life?