How Are Mental Health And Pain Levels Related, And What Can You Do About It?

pain and menta health

Have you ever had a stressful day that ended with a headache? That’s a small example of how closely our mental health and pain levels are related, and every day researchers uncover new ways the two influence one another. In this post, we talk about some of the more recent findings when it comes to mental health and pain, as well as research-backed ways to manage your mental health.

What the research says about mental health and pain

Before medical technology gained its remarkable level of sophistication, doctors always asked patients about the things going on in their lives. In the 1800s, before CAT scans and MRIs, opioids and epidurals, doctors looked to a patient’s mental health and daily life circumstances to diagnose and treat disease. Illness was frequently met with recommendations to relax at a spa or enjoy a seaside vacation, according to Medline Plus.

But as medicine advanced, and doctors uncovered the existence of bacteria, antibiotics, and understood more about the development of disease, that historic mind/body connection faded into the background. Over time, the two became completely divorced and many doctors didn’t ask about a patient’s stress levels at all even though research linked poor mental health to everything from chronic pain to high blood pressure, according to WebMD.

Today, however, the link between mental health and physical wellbeing is again gaining prominence. Mental health often influences the development of physical maladies, and health problems typically increase a person’s stress levels and create additional problems. Living with chronic pain undoubtedly causes stress and anxiety that could ironically worsen feelings of pain. Dr. Natalia Morone with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine says:

“You may not be aware of it, but you’re having a negative emotional reaction to chronic pain as well as a physical reaction.”

The interactions between emotions and physical health are intricate and still not completely understood by researchers. The effects of some emotions, like stress, have been well studied when it comes to their influence on pain. Meanwhile, the effects of others, like anger, have not been as thoroughly investigated but are still believed to heavily influence a person’s experience of pain.

Pain is worsened by anger

Everybody feels anger occasionally, but unfortunately many people don’t have effective strategies for coping with this difficult emotion. We may carry anger related to things that happened or words that can’t be unspoken. Releasing anger often requires finding forgiveness for ourselves or others, which is very difficult to do and doesn’t happen automatically.

While it’s understandable to be affected by anger, the emotion can wreak havoc on our health. Anger may increase the risk of heart disease, according to WebMD, with extreme anger invoking the body’s stress response and triggering the production of inflammatory hormones and other components of the flight-or-fight response.

Studies have also connected anger to pain. Dutch researchers studied 121 women, some with fibromyalgia and some without, and found that anger increased the subjects’ levels of pain regardless of whether they had fibromyalgia. Dr. Henriet van Middendorp says:

“Teaching patients to recognize their emotions and to express them may decrease the intensity with which the emotions are experienced, which will also decrease the impact of emotions on pain.”

Other researchers believe anger may be to blame for one of the top chronic pain complaints in the U.S. Dr. John Sarno is a vocal advocate of the theory that repressed rage causes low back pain. According to Prevention magazine:

“Dr. Sarno believes that to protect you from acting on—or being destroyed by—that rage, your unconscious mind distracts you from the anger by creating a socially acceptable malaise: lower back pain.”

Sarno believes that some personalities are at greater risk of pain than others. Traits upping the risk include talented perfectionists who often neglect their own needs to serve others.

Healthy ways of managing anger include talking it out in a rational way, writing notes or journaling, or hitting the gym, Prevention recommends.

Depression may cause or intensify pain

Depression ranks among the most common mental health issues, and unfortunately it has a significant impact on pain. When a person becomes depressed, the brain starts producing neurotransmitters that increase pain sensitivity and may actually cause new aches and pains.

The link between depression and chronic pain is so strong that some types of pain—including aches, joint pain, and headaches—are considered symptoms of the mental health condition, according to therapist Kara Gasperone.

While many people think of depression as persistent feelings of sadness, the condition sometimes manifests physically instead of psychologically.

A study published in The Lancet found one-third of intensive care patients with depression exhibited physical symptoms and not psychological ones. Critical care patients are more likely than the general population to develop depression, and the mental health condition is more common than post-traumatic stress disorder for those patients. Physical symptoms of depression include weakness, a change in appetite, and fatigue.

Although researchers are still working to understand the mechanics behind the link between depression and pain, some studies show that depression brings with it higher levels of cytokines, which are a type of protein that help the body fight infections, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

When cytokines are present in a person not fighting disease or infection, the result can be excessive inflammation that may lead to pain. According to NIMH:

“Many studies are finding that inflammation may be a link between depression and illnesses that often occur with depression.”

Depression may also have a link with fibromyalgia, NIMH says, adding that patients have higher rates of depression. Pain conditions like fibromyalgia may also increase the risk of depression. Living day in and day out with unpredictable pain makes it difficult to stay positive, but good mental health may help lessen pain.

Pain catastrophizing makes pain worse

Looking at things from a broad, balanced perspective is a part of mental health. However, a way of thinking known as catastrophizing, which involves people assuming the worst possible outcome, promotes pain, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

For example, a person experiencing back pain who feels he is doomed to suffer for the rest of his life will likely feel more pain than a person who adopts the nuanced view that some days will inevitably be good and others bad.

Managing mental health and pain, together

While many questions about the connection between mental health and pain remain unanswered, researchers do know that a person’s thoughts and feelings greatly influence their experience. But, what can you actually do about it?

The news is full of recommendations people can take to live better. Some tips are fads while others promote time-tested practices, but the noise can be overwhelming. Fortunately, researchers are also busy evaluating these claims and quantifying the benefits in an effort to identify the core practices that actually impact your quality of life.

Better health is within your reach. Keep in mind that all areas of health are related. Taking steps to improve physical health, for instance, improves mental health. And improved mental health can reduce chronic pain. And so while treating multiple health concerns can seem overwhelming, you’ll soon find that taking small steps leads to big rewards on various levels.

Here is our list of the research-backed, top six ways to live better. But, first, always remember that reaching out for help is crucial. If you try these tips and they don’t help, reach out to a professional for help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists resources for anyone struggling with mental health issues.

mental health and pain

1. Meditate

Meditation is a centuries-old practice, but research is now quantifying its vast potential to reduce chronic pain and improve overall life quality.

Meditation helps us be more mindful, which means developing a greater awareness of the present moment. It’s easy to get caught up in the never-ending narrative inside our heads. However, this internal dialogue can worsen symptoms for people living with pain, anxiety, or depression.

Through meditation, practitioners learn to quiet mental chatter, which lowers stress levels and often reduces pain, or at least helps people better cope with it.

Through meditation, people also learn to have greater compassion and kindness towards themselves. This is important for those with chronic health concerns like pain. Pain patient and mindfulness expert Vidyamala Burch says the typical way of thinking about illness as a battle to be waged is not helpful.

Instead, developing compassion and kindness towards ourselves and others is the best way to feel better, she adds.

2. Sweat every day

Exercise is one of the single most important things you can to do improve your health. Sitting has become a nationwide epidemic, and health experts have even called sitting the new smoking because of its detrimental health impacts.

Counteract those long hours spent in chairs and on couches by sweating every day!

Researchers from James Cook University studied adults middle-aged and older and found that those who sweated every day lived longer. Scientists analyzed longevity trends among more than 200,000 people. Some of them participated in rigorous activities like jogging or tennis. Others exercised in more gentle ways, like swimming or slower, social tennis.

The findings revealed that those who made it a point to huff and puff were up to 13% less likely to die during the study period. Study author Dr. Klaus Gebel says:

“The results indicate that whether or not you are obese, and whether or not you have heart disease or diabetes, if you can manage some vigorous activity it could offer significant benefits for longevity.”

3. Reduce stress

High levels of stress not only decrease quality of life, but also contribute to arthritis, depression, heart problems, and diabetes, according to WebMD. It could also shorten your life.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that women under chronic stress had lower levels of a longevity hormone known as klotho. The hormone regulates aging processes and cognition, with lower levels contributing to a greater risk for disease and premature death.

Methods for reducing stress include exercising, taking time to relax, and meditating. You may also find journaling, listening to music, playing with a pet, or taking a walk helpful.

Whatever you do, don’t stress about stress! That worsens the feeling. Simply acknowledge it, and then take time to enjoy your favorite way of relieving the tension.

4. Eat whole foods

Eating a good diet is essential not just for physical health, but also for mental health. While the links between food and physical health are well known, research is increasingly driving home the importance of a healthy diet to feel better emotionally.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne found nutrients like B12, omega 3, magnesium, iron, and vitamin D promote brain health. Meanwhile, eating healthy foods also lowers the risk for depression and suicide, the study showed.

The researchers say prescriptions of nutrition could help people in counseling thrive. They recommend that mental health professionals include diet as an element of traditional psychiatry.

Earlier research showed that the stomach has a wide network of neurons—so many that scientists have dubbed it the second brain, according to Scientific American. Considering the stomach processes all the food we eat, this research underscores the significant connection between diet and mental health.

To live better, focus on a diet full of foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins. A simple, nutritious meal could be as simple as roasted vegetables with a lean protein like chicken, fish, or even beans. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive.

5. Cultivate friendships

Humans are social creatures. Even loners need friends. If you don’t have deep relationships, there is nothing wrong with you, so don’t be hard on yourself. But cultivating more social relationships is one of the most important things to do for your health, according to The Week.

If you could quantify the tools to live better, a more satisfying social life would be worth an additional $131,232 annually, reports The Week. You can’t buy friends or happiness, but sometimes putting a cost on things helps to put non-tangible factors into perspective.

Friends make you feel less alone, help you forget your worries, and make good times more memorable. If you’d like to meet people, try volunteering, taking part in a social activity like tennis, or saying “hi.” You never know where a simple hello will go.

6. Practice moderation

Moderation in all things is another top tip to live better. Eat chocolate, drink coffee, exercise, and eat good food—all in moderation, including moderation.

If life is a buffet, then living fully can be imagined as taking small servings from every choice. Some days call for celebration and cake. Others (most) call for kale and broccoli. Tuning into your body to figure out what choice best supports your wellbeing on any particular day is one of the most effective ways to live better.

What are your top tips to live better and improve your mental health and pain? Share your favorites in the comments!