#9 Fight or flight – how stress affects your pain.Sep 23, 2021
I remember an elderly patient who flared her autoimmune condition after riding a roller coaster – she thought she would die from a heart attack! Two days after riding it, she was in my office complaining of swollen joints. She described the distinct fear she experienced, her body feeling paralyzed, chest tightness, heart pounding, dizziness, and nausea as she was going up and down the turns, not expecting to survive. The experience stressed her out both physically and emotionally.
I can relate. I rode two roller coasters in my life. The first one, a conscious decision - I never been on one before, and after few seconds, I decided it will be the last time I rode a roller coaster. The second one was the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Disney world. Somehow, I did not understand that it was a roller coaster, thinking it was a harmless train. By the time I finished standing in line and saw the roller coaster, I felt too embraced to turn around and leave. It was just as stressful as the first ride. I still cannot understand how anyone can find roller coasters entertaining.
We all have examples of stress. But what is stress? One of the Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions: “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”
This definition focuses on stress as most of us think of it – the causes of stress.
We all can list the stressors of our lives –work, relationship, finances, health, politics, etc.; we are surrounded by the experiences that stress us out.
But there is another way of looking at stress. Stress is a situation that is difficult to cope with, and that creates a reaction in the body – physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral.
Different people cope with circumstances differently and will have different reactions to a similar situation.
Any trigger of stress can create a unique stress reaction in our body composed of four parts - physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral.
The physical or biological reaction is wired in our nervous system. It is the sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. It activates to protect us from the dangers -to fight or run away from an attacker. Our bodies quickly respond by increasing blood pressure, heart and breathing rate, diverts blood floor from our digestive organs to the muscles so we can fight or run away.
Stress can produce all kinds of emotions - anger, sadness, shame, nervous laughter, etc.
Behaviors change under stress. “Stress eating,” lashing out, avoiding activities, sleeping too much, or tossing and turning all night. Some actions may serve us, while others are harmful.
Cognitive reactions, comprised of thoughts, are one of the most powerful modifiers of stress. Not only can our thoughts create a stress reaction on their own, but they can also amplify stress and diminish our ability to cope with it. The thoughts are the coping mechanics we have and use.
Chronic pain is a major ongoing stressor. It produces every type of stress response – biological/physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive changes. Increasing or reducing stress triggers can also amplify or decrease pain levels. Understanding how manage non-pain-related stress will improve quality of life and may reduce the pain itself.
See last week blog post #8 - https://www.rheumcoach.com/blog/8
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DISCLAIMER: This blog provides information only, and does not provide any medical or psychological services or advice. None of the content on this blog prevents, cures or treats any mental or medical condition. You are responsible for your own physical, mental and emotional well-being, decisions, choices, actions and results.