2 weeks ago in my blog, I just scratched the surface in explaining pain science to help you understand how kinesiology tape works. However, I found it fitting to dive a little deeper into pain science this week and look at how stress and our emotions can impact how we experience physical pain. In the last 2+ months we have all undergone significant life changes with the Coronavirus pandemic, which has inevitably led to an increase in our stress levels. Now we add on top of that the murder of George Floyd and the uprising over racial injustice in America. Which has undoubtedly raised a number of different emotions in all of us.
Pain is very complex and there are a multiple factors that contribute to how we as humans experience pain, with stress and emotions being 2 of those factors. Before we dive too much further into pain science, let's do a quick refresher of pain basics:
We do NOT have pain sensing fibers in our body
Pain is a decision made by the brain based on a perceived threat
Pain does NOT = tissue damage
Pain is a request for a change (ie - move your hand off of the hot plate, move your bare foot off of the rock, do not sit in that position any longer)
The Effects of Stress on Pain
Most of the the processes in our body happen by the way of a chemical reaction. These chemical reactions are regulated by ion channels that allow the necessary chemicals to flow in and out of our cells. When we are in a heightened state of stress, our ion channels can be altered by the stress chemical cortisol. This can make our nerves "more sensitive" so to speak. For example, when you are in a normal non-stressed state and hit your knee on the car door, your nerves will sense the impact and send that signal to your brain and your brain sends pain signal, so you move away from the danger. However, after you rub your knee for a little bit and walk it off you are fine and you go on with your day. Now, if you are in a stressful state and your brain is already perceiving a threat from your stress, that same bump of the knee could turn into difficulty walking and having pain for an extended period of time.
As we talked about above, pain is a decision made by the brain based on a perceived threat. So when we are in a heightened and stressful state, the brain is already a little on edge from the perceived threat from the stress. Meaning, it would normally take a larger stimulus for the brain to interpret a threat, now only takes a small stimulus for the brain to perceive a threat. The picture below illustrates how this can happen. The bottom part of the picture also shows some strategies to help decrease your stress and desensitize your nervous system.
The Effects of Emotions on Pain
Pain is influenced by emotions, and the cycle of pain and emotions are interrelated. Emotions may also directly impact physical change as well. For example, when you are anxious or angry, your muscles may tighten, and that physical change may also contribute to increased pain.
Our brain is a very complex structure. Every second it is taking in information and interpreting that information and then causing our body to act based on what it perceives. When we experience an injury, the lower centers of our brain (the part that involves our emotions) usually activate and process the threat and then produce a response. For example, you hit your thumb with a hammer, the action or response would be to pull your thumb away from the hammer and hold it. The Amygdala, which is in the lower center of the brain and it is involved in processing memory and emotions. It is one of the most turned on areas in the brain during a pain experience.
If we are fearful of pain or afraid that all pain will lead to negative outcomes, this experiences how the emotional center of our brain will interpret the threat and the brain can interpret the threat as "very dangerous" when really it is only a minor threat. If we are in a state of depression or anxiety or highly irritable, it can also impact the brains interpretation of the threat. All of this can lead to experiencing a higher level of pain or potentially experiencing pain without sustaining injury.
What Are Some Strategies to Combat these Effects?
So when you are experiencing pain and you identify that heightened stress or emotions may be influencing your pain, there are a number of different strategies you can use to help decrease your stress and pain. In addition to the above list, you can also:
Practice yoga to improve your mind-body connection
Workout to help relieve stress
Journal to write down and express your emotions, also include something you are thankful for
Focus on your mindset
One of the strategies mentioned in the first figure is diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing techniques are something that you can use improve decrease your stress and clear your thoughts, in turn this can help improve your pain. Some of the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing include:
Improves relaxation, which decreases the stress hormone cortisol
Decreasing stress improves your immune system
Improves the mind-body connection
Decreases heart rate and blood pressure
Improves cognition and attention
Watch this video to learn the basics of diaphragmatic breathing.