Anxiety can be a real pain, both literally and figuratively speaking. Studies have suggested that anxiety is capable not only of disrupting your everyday life with excessive worry and mental strain, but also of causing you physical pain, as well as increasing your sensitivity to pain in general.
This article will discuss the physical symptoms of anxiety that can cause pain, and the psychological effects of anxiety that may make pain worse.
How Anxiety Causes Pain
Anxiety causes physical pain primarily by increasing bodily tension. When anxiety triggers fight-or-flight response patterns in the body, part of that response is to cause the muscles to tense up in anticipation of being used either to engage in combat or make a quick escape.
Long term bodily tension, and even short term tension in elderly individuals and individuals who are less physically fit can result in aches and pains, particularly in the neck, upper and lower back, arms and shoulders.
Other symptoms of anxiety such as shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, and shaking can each contribute to physical pain. The former two may cause arm and chest aches due to prolonged rapid movements in the upper body, while uncontrollable shaking can cause general body aches and fatigue.
Effects of Anxiety on Pain
Anxiety is thought to intensify pain in three significant ways— by focusing your attention on the pain, by robbing you of sleep and recovery time, and by adding to any anticipatory anxiety you might have relating to the painful experience.
When you are anxious, any small concern can take up inordinate amounts of your attention. An otherwise slight pain that another person might ignore may become an all-consuming concern when anxiety sets in and suggests that a stomachache might indicate a tumor, or that an aching joint could be caused by a fractured bone. Thinking too much about your pain can lead to a prolonged and intensified pain experience that might otherwise register only for a short period of time and be dismissed as minor.
Anxiety can also make it more difficult for you to get a good night’s sleep. Staying up late worrying means you get fewer hours of sleep in total and are less likely to reach the REM stage. Even if you do get to sleep, nightmares resulting from anxiety can disrupt your sleep cycle and make it even harder to get to sleep the next night, or back to sleep if the nightmare wakes you up. Sleep is an important time for the body in terms of both mental and physical relaxation. Without your daily healing period of sleep, your body has less of a chance to recover from any physical injuries it may have sustained during the day, making for more overall pain due to a longer pain recovery time.
Anxiety can also cause you to anticipate pain more intensely, which can increase the intensity of the painful experience. Conversely, decreasing anticipatory anxiety disengages the hippocampus, a section of the brain responsible in part for the body’s fear responses, which theoretically decreases pain reactions as a result. When the hippocampus is engaged due to anticipatory anxiety, the body experiences increased sensitivity to pain. Though pain responses intensified by anxiety may seem like overreactions to a bystander, the experience of disproportionately intense pain is real to the person experiencing it and should not be taken lightly.
Pain and Anxiety in Summary
Anxiety causes pain due to muscle aches resulting from its physical symptoms. It also increases and prolongs pain when it focuses your attention on pain, keeps you from getting healing sleep, and increases anticipatory anxiety relating to painful experiences.
Pain caused by anxiety or affected by anxiety can be hard to identify, as anxiety itself may cause a person to presume a more serious cause or experience a minor pain as intense. However, if you are someone with anxiety who experiences bodily pain on a regular basis, you may want to talk to your doctor about both mental and physical exercises you can do to help you keep unnecessary pain from being a part of your life.
About the Author: Ryan Rivera suffered from many unusual body sensations as a result of his anxiety, including pain. Now he writes about how to overcome anxiety at www.calmclinic.com.