People who suffer with chronic pain often have other symptoms than just the pain. A lot of this can depend on the cause and source of pain, but there are some common symptoms that people suffer and which are often surprising for others to understand. In this short blog series, I am looking at some of the surprising symptoms of chronic pain, how they can affect us, and what we can do to help manage things. In this second post I talk about stress. Catch up on my first post about anxiety.
April is Stress Awareness Month. It’s been around since 1992 and is an opportunity to raise awareness and talk more openly about the what causes stress and how it can be treated.
The week of Monday 14 May 2018 is Mental Health Awareness Week 2018, and this year the focus is stress.
What is stress?
Wikipedia says that stress is “…is a feeling of strain and pressure…Small amounts of stress may be desired, beneficial, and even healthy. Positive stress helps improve athletic performance. It also plays a factor in motivation, adaptation, and reaction to the environment. Excessive amounts of stress, however, may lead to bodily harm. Stress can increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, ulcers, and mental illnesses such as depression.”
What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
At the time of writing this blog post I was reading a book called The Real Happy Pill: Power Up Your Brain By Moving Your Body, and I came across a really good explanation of the difference between stress and anxiety:
“Stress is a reaction to something that happens here and now and that is perceived as a threat. On the other hand, anxiety is worry connected to something that isn’t a threat at present, or to something that has happened, or might possibly happen.”
People with anxiety perceive danger and threat even when it isn’t there. The part of the brain that controls anxiety is constantly on alert and this sets off the stress response. And as I talked about in my anxiety blog post, people with chronic pain are more prone to feelings of anxiety.
So why Is stress often a symPtom of chronic pain?
Being in so much pain can cause stress – and stress can cause more pain
Chronic pain is usually diagnosed after being in pain for more than 12 weeks. Having pain for such a long time is stressful. It’s constant, it gets you down, and it is both physically and mentally draining.
The worst thing about chronic pain causing stress, is that this stress can then cause more pain. It’s a vicious circle which is hard to break.
You don’t get the help you need
A lot of the time there is no diagnosis for chronic pain – I learnt this in the book Beyond Pain: Conquer Your Pain, Reclaim Your Life. I spent years trying to find out what was causing my pain, and even to this day I have no diagnosis or explanation. And when you have no diagnosis it can be hard to get the help you need to deal with your pain. This causes frustration and can lead to feeling stressed.
Stress can also be caused by doctors and other healthcare specialists not listening to you. No one knows your pain better than you do, and it can be so hard trying to explain your pain but people don’t listen and take on board what you say. In the early days, I wanted an x-ray doing to get some more answers, but it was refused because even if my coccyx was broken, then there was nothing they could do; it would heal on it’s own. I understood the theory but it was still hard to accept as I was in so much agony and just wanted answers and something to be done about it.
Not being able to do the things you used to do
Obviously it depends on what your pain is and how it affects you, but more often than not, you are unable to do some of the things you used to do. This can have a huge impact on your life and on your mental wellbeing, often causing both stress and anger.
In the early days of my pain, I didn’t used to go out to restaurants – I was in too much pain. My partner and I always loved going out to our favourite places to eat and having some quality time together eating our favourite foods. This not only impacted on me but on my partner as well.
Taking time off work
Sometimes we need to listen to our bodies and take time off work to recover and get better. Sometimes we need time off work because medication side effects can cause other symptoms, such as drowsiness and prevent us from driving. And sometimes the pain is just too bad that we can’t physically work.
For some people, including myself, work is good distraction and can help us manage our pain. But when we have to be off work, this can cause stress because we want that distraction to continue. We also need the money to pay the bills.
Taking time off work can lead to other thoughts and anxieties, which can cause even more stress:
- Feelings of guilt on colleagues and team members – how will my time off impact on them? Will they be annoyed they are doing more work? What will they be thinking about me?
- Worries about the return to work – will my workload be increased? Will my colleagues treat me differently? How can I manage my pain and carry on working?
Workplace adjustments (also called reasonable adjustments) are crucial to help you get back to work and I will be doing a blog post about this in the near future.
People don’t understand
Even those close to us don’t always understand our pain and how it affects us. And this can be one of the biggest frustrations and causes of stress associated with chronic pain. People just don’t get it. Or even worse, they think they do, and they treat you just the same and have the same expectations of you, and ultimately this makes things worse.
I used to say no to doing a lot of things, and my friends wouldn’t understand why. I understood they didn’t get it, but there was no empathy – no one would put themselves in my shoes and see it from my perspective. I didn’t want sympathy or anything like that, I just wanted people to try and understand. I get it is hard for people around us, as they often just want the old you back, and it can be stressful for them too as they don’t get to do the things they’ve always done with you. But the people who matter the most will adapt, encourage and support you no matter what.
Waiting for treatment to happen
The early days of chronic pain, assessment and treatment can be a long, slow journey. You can often wait weeks or months for an appointment, and then wait even longer for some treatment. What’s even worse is that you wait for a treatment date, and then it gets cancelled. This happened to me. I was due to have some manipulation under general anaesthetic and a steroid injection, and I was gowned up ready at the hospital, but last minute it got cancelled because my temperature was too high. Apparently there was a risk if I was to have the general anaesthetic. I found this extremely hard to accept and naturally this stressed me out. I’d psyched myself up for the procedure and was so annoyed I’d have to wait for another date to come through. Obviously they were putting my health first, but it was still frustrating and hard to acccept which caused anxiety, stress, and lots of tears.
Tips for managing stress
Use your energy wisely
As hard as it is, and I’ve been there, it is important not to let this stress take over. Some things are out of our control and it’s much better to accept this and put our energy in to more important things; in to things we can control. I’ve got better at this in terms of my pain, but I am still working on this in other areas of my life. It takes time but stick with it and you will start to manage your pain better.
Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t
Don’t dwell on the stuff you can’t do – it’s frustrating and difficult but like in the tip above, you need to put your energy in to better things. Focus on the stuff you can do. This may open up new opportunities for you to try new things and develop new skills.
- I used to ride my bike – now I do skipping.
- I used to regularly go to the cinema – now I get much comfier at home watching Netflix (I’ve watched loads of stuff that I wouldn’t have normally watched).
- I struggle to sit on wooden seats – I try new restaurants with comfier seating, which means I get to try new food.
Sometimes these changes are only small and can be out of your comfort zone. But as the saying ‘life begins at the end of your comfort zone’ suggests, it’s not all bad and can open the door to a whole new world for you.
Lavender is a well-known stress relief. It can be used as an aromatherapy oil or dried herb and breathing in the aroma can help make you relaxed and calm, which reduces our stress levels. I use the pulse-point roll-ons by Tisserand. I’ve also got some some handmade lavender-filled pyramids on my headboard which help me sleep. These are made by @maybe.kb.craft on Instagram.
Go for a walk or get some fresh air
Lately I have really been enjoying my walking. I try to do 10,000 steps a day which helps me keep moving to loosen my muscles (which is all part of my pain management) but also provides other health benefits, such as burning more calories and helps me manage my mental wellbeing, which in turn reduces my stress. Read more about walking for stress here.
Do some exercise – be active
People often talk about exercise being the medicine for stress, by why is it? In simple terms, any form of exercise and training calms and reduces our stress response. And the more we exercise, our brains learn to cope better with stressful and anxious situations. I highly recommend reading The Real Happy Pill: Power Up Your Brain By Moving Your Body by Andres Hansen to get a better understanding of the effects of exercise on managing stress if you want to learn more.
How do you manage your stress? What tips can you give to others? Comment below – I’d love to hear from you.