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Having a chronic illness is stressful. The frequent doctor’s appointments, the constant pain and fatigue, the looming fear of what turn the disease may take next. It’s hard to take your mind off of your illness long enough to relax. You may find that stress makes your illness even more difficult to manage, and that is due to the harmful effects that stress can have on the body and the mind.

How Stress Can Exacerbate Chronic Pain

A new stressor causes the sympathetic nervous system to cause physiological changes – heart rate and blood pressure increase, and respiration speeds up. This is a short-term, pro-inflammatory response, meant to destroy foreign invaders in the body. While the intent of this response is to protect the body, it can attack the body when it is over-used. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of the “fight or flight” response that people experience in response to stressful situations. The parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite job – returning the body to a healthy and normal state. Both are important, and keeping a balance between the two is crucial. If the body experiences too much stress, the sympathetic nervous system creates wear and tear on the body, leading to more pain. Not to mention, stress can also cause mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Chronic pain causes more pain! It does so through the stress that it causes, which subsequently activates the nervous system and the persistently stressed nervous system leads to chronic muscle tension, which becomes painful in and of itself.

Dr. McAllister

founder of the Institute for Chronic Pain

Too much stress has terrible effects on the body, and for someone with a chronic illness, it may seem impossible to avoid. However, some lifestyle and mindset changes can be key in eliminating common stressors from your life and making you feel better both mentally and physically.

Try to avoid stress at work

Work is one of the biggest stressors in most people’s lives. Deadlines, workplace drama, traveling, and long hours are enough to push a healthy person over the edge – not to mention a person battling a chronic illness. In order to take proper care of yourself, make sure that your work environment is not stressing you out. If you have a job that is stressful by nature, consider cutting back your hours or changing career paths. That’s easier said than done, but nothing is more important than your mental and physical health. Check out our blog post on working full-time with sarcoidosis for more tips.

It’s possible to have chronic pain and not have it disrupt your life. It’s possible to have chronic pain and not be depressed about it. It’s possible to have chronic pain and sleep well at night. It’s possible to have chronic pain and work full-time. It’s possible to have chronic pain and have a fulfilling and intimate relationship.

Dr. McAllister

founder of the Institute for Chronic Pain

Surround yourself with the right people

When trying to live a stress-free lifestyle, it’s important to avoid drama queens and pot-stirrers. Stress has a way of radiating off of people and infecting others. Surrounding yourself with calm, rational people is the first step in remaining relaxed. Additionally, you should value the people in your life who are willing to help you on days that your illness is too much to handle. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your loved ones when you don’t have the energy to pick up your dry cleaning or take your dog for a walk after a long day of work. Having a strong support system is a blessing for keeping stress out of your life.

Chronic pain rehabilitation

Mental health issues like stress, anxiety, and depression are quite common within people with chronic illnesses. Having to deal with debilitating symptoms on a daily basis seems unfair, and it can lead to feelings of hopelessness. This reality led to the development of chronic pain rehabilitation, a program in which patients learn to deal with the stress of living with chronic pain. The goal of this program is to reduce chronic pain within patient as well as improve their mental health.

Relaxation techniques

Most people experience more stress than they should. There are many remedies and relaxation techniques to combat this. Listening to music, meditating, being physically active, and spending time with friends and loved ones are just a few examples. Eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated are key components as well. Just making a conscious effort to avoid stress will make an impact because any step you take in that direction is a healthy one.

Photo by Gavin Whitner

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