The question of ‘can anxiety cause chronic pain’ is an important one. The first thing is to do is deconstruct anxiety and stress. Once you understand these two processes, it’s possible to see how they relate to chronic pain
Anxiety is differeng from stress. Stress is a situation (internal or external) you find hard to cope with. Anxiety is how your mind reacts to this situation.
The process of anxiety is twofold. The first process is there is something stressful occurring in your life, and in your mind you feel that you cannot adapt to what’s happening. You feel overwhelmed and get a feeling that you just can’t cope.
When you reach a tipping point, and as this tipping point occurs your mind does something profound and incredibly powerful. It projects what’s happening in your mind into the future.
The truth is, this feeling of overwhelm is a construct of your mind. You may feel overwhelmed right now. But the feeling comes from thinking about possible stresses in the future.
This means the construct inside your mind has totally changed how you believe your future is going to be.
There are people who go through incredible stress (childbirth, war, being CEO of a large company in trouble) and they cope with the stress by remaining in the present moment. The stress is enormous, but the anxiety is small.
If you have a large amount of anxiety, it restricts what you believe you’re able to do. This is how anxiety impinges on all aspects of your life.
That’s what’s happening in your mind when you’re anxious. Anxiety also has a powerful effect on your body.
It turns on your fight and flight and response. When you’re in the grip of anxiety, your body pumps out cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart starts to beat faster. You feel sweaty feel anxious your breathing speeds up so you start to hyperventilate.
The end result is a state where you feel very uncomfortable. The process of anxiety takes what was a construct of your mind and brings it into your body. It brings this fear about the future into the present and makes it even more real.
Anxiety then becomes a mind-body process which affects your present and your future. It’s creating a powerfully negative state.
This is dangerous, and the reason I can say this is that there are a whole raft of studies – prospected, retrospective, community-based studies – where researchers have looked at tens of thousands of people.
They’ve found that stress related anxiety shortens your life. This is because it increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes. It also changes immune your immune function so your risk of cancer increases.
Finally, chronic anxiety increases the risk of suicide and depression. So being in a state of overwhelm is in fact dangerous. Worry about the future becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
Now let’s look at chronic pain. There are very large similarities between anxiety and chronic pain. With chronic pain, you have a malfunction of your pain system which sends messages to your brain.
This means normal nerve messages in your body are amplified and distorted. You feel pain in areas which are healed or mostly healed. And the pain you feel is not an accurate representation of what’s actually happening in your body.
This is the same as anxiety, which also isn’t coming from an accurate representation of what’s really happening around you.
These two processes feed each other. The chronic pain process is, in essence, a stressful thing. It can turn on a fight and flight response. When this happens, you have the same symptoms as anxiety – you feel sweaty, your heart is beating faster, many people hyperventilate. Over time, living in fight and flight mode can cause irritable bowel or irritable bladder.
If you step back and look at anxiety and chronic pain, the processes are operating in parallel. They dance together and amplify each other.
The interesting thing is science is catching up on the relationship between the two. If you do a functional MRI scan, the same areas of the brain light up in chronic stress and in chronic pain.
If you look at the midbrain (also known as the lizard brain,) you have the thalamus, right next to it is the limbic centre, and just below it is the hypothalamus. All these areas light up in both conditions and will stimulate the pituitary to pump out cortisol (otherwise known as the ‘stress hormone’.)
We are using the same parts of the brain for anxiety, stress and pain. They feed each other and need to be addressed together. That’s where Life After Pain techniques can be very useful, and help to bring both responses down under your control again.