The Relationship Between Anxiety and Pain

Anxiety and pain are intimately connected. In fact, an estimated 30%-50% of people suffering from chronic pain develop depression and anxiety. 

How are Anxiety and Chronic Pain Related?

Chronic pain can be debilitating, and it comes with natural fears. You may worry about being in pain when you’re out with friends and family or when performing certain tasks. If pain is a constant in your life and it makes your life more difficult, anxiety is a natural reaction.

But when the pain doesn’t go away or treatment works intermittently, that chronic pain may also lead to chronic anxiety.

Worries about what’s causing the pain, how it will affect your future, and how long you will have to suffer can also make anxiety worse.

Pain can also change parts of the brain associated with processing emotion, which can make it difficult to control anxiety and other intense emotions.

the relationship between anxiety and pain person sitting on white bed looking down stressed anxious white background

The Science Behind the Pain and Anxiety Connection

When your body feels pain, it sets off your fight-or-flight response, which amplifies stress. You may feel a heightened sense of anxiety, pain, and other sensations. This is because your body is experiencing a surge in cortisol, the stress hormone. 

That fight-or-flight state also has other effects that can lead to anxiety:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Increased muscle tension
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive issues
  • Avoidance behavior, such as resting, staying home, and not enjoying activities that may cause pain

Cortisol increases glucose in the blood to give your body the energy it needs to think and act quickly. Unfortunately, cortisol also suppresses your immune system and can have other detrimental side effects.

The chain reaction set off by pain can be incredibly useful in life-or-death situations. This is, after all, how humans have survived. But when you’re experiencing chronic pain, it can keep your cortisol levels elevated for too long.

Pain and Anxiety: A Vicious Cycle 

Pain can cause anxiety, but anxiety can also exacerbate pain. This creates a vicious cycle where anxiety and pain are constantly feeding each other.

How can anxiety make chronic pain worse? 

When you feel anxious, it creates chemical changes in the brain that can lower your pain threshold. In other words, you become more sensitive to pain.

Anxiety and pain can also make you less likely to move around and exercise because you’re worried about feeling pain. The lack of activity can make your pain worse.

In addition to all of this, anxiety can cause tension in the nervous system, which can eventually lead to painful muscle spasms and tension. This can also lead to the dreaded anxiety headache, which can be very painful.

Can Anxiety Cause Chest Pain?

the relationship between anxiety and pain can anxiety cause chest pain person holding chest in front of business

Chest pain is always a cause for concern. Although it has many causes, chest pain is also a sign of a heart attack. If you’re suffering from anxiety and you’re experiencing chest pain, you may be wondering whether the two can be linked. 

Chest pain can be a symptom of anxiety, but it’s important to see your doctor if you’re experiencing pain in your chest. Your doctor will be able to determine whether your pain is just a side effect of a panic attack, or something more serious.

Anxiety causes tension in the body, which includes the chest. So, it’s not uncommon for people to experience chest pain when they’re feeling anxious or having an anxiety attack.

What Does Anxiety Chest Pain Feel Like?

Anxiety-related chest pain can feel different for every person. Some people may experience sharp, sudden pain, while others may experience a mild ache.

Symptoms can include:

  • Persistent aching
  • Sharp or shooting pain
  • Burning or numbness
  • Tightness or tension in the chest
  • Pressure or stabbing sensation

If you’ve never experienced anxiety-related chest pain, these symptoms can be alarming. You may assume that you’re having a heart attack, which can make your anxiety and your chest pain even worse.

Up to 50% of people that go to the emergency room for chest pain not related to heart attacks suffer from moderate or severe anxiety.

Breaking the Cycle of Chronic Pain and Anxiety

Although chronic pain and anxiety can be difficult to treat, there is hope. In addition to cognitive behavioral therapy and conventional medicine, there are natural ways to help put your body in a more relaxed state. Easing anxiety, stress, and tension may help reduce pain symptoms.

Natural treatment options may include:

All of these natural options are backed by science and research, although their effectiveness will vary from one person to another. They can easily complement an existing treatment program and are easy to incorporate into your daily routine.

Chronic pain and anxiety are interconnected, and it can be challenging to break their cycle. However, understanding the relationship between the two and working to address both sides can help bring some relief. 

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