Does Anxiety Hurt?
Physical pain is a major impact on our mental health. From chronic to acute, severe to minor, pain will have an impact on our mood that can be quite staggering. Luckily most of us learn to manage everyday aches and pains without it causing much of a mental health issue at all, but even the most pain tolerant person can struggle to stay unaffected by the every now and again moderate to severe pain we encounter. While most physical pain has clear sources and also clear solutions, sometimes we feel pain that we can’t quite put our finger on as to why it is happening or even what exactly is hurting. In exploring the countless ways anxiety can present itself in the body, I have come to believe that anxiety causes pain quite often. Most are familiar with chest pain due to tightness from an anxiety attack, or maybe a headache from anxiety due to tension. I have found that it presents in other more subtle ways that are usually not severe enough for someone to be in agony but can cause enough pain that their mind is not able to focus and calm down the anxiety. It also is not uncommon for someone to notice that while anxious, an area of pain that is caused from an injury or illness seems to feel worse. The biological mechanism for this is beyond my scope of expertise and would be suited for a medical doctor to answer the “how” this works, but the mental fallout from dealing with it can be helped by some psychological practices.
When Anxiety is the Cause of Pain
As previously mentioned, most people have heard of anxiety causing chest pains or headaches. These are easily explained by muscle tension. When we are anxious, our muscles tighten to prepare for fight or flight, and while it causes pain it is actually not harmful at all. I have never fully gotten an answer as to whether a person experiencing these pains should treat them with over-the-counter pain relievers or if they should just let them relax themselves, particularly when they are interfering with things like focusing at work or school. Regardless of how someone treats it, these pains always dissipate in time as anxiety goes down. There are other lesser known pains that anxiety seems to cause in some people. A fairly common one I have heard people report is upper back pain. This makes sense as the same process that causes tension in the head or chest can hit the upper back and give that sore and crampy feeling we typically relate to muscle knots. This pain reported is different from chronic spinal pain due to injury, as it is less severe and more of a tightness as opposed to sharp pains.
I have also encountered a few clients who report that when anxious their arms and hands start to hurt. This is particularly distressing as it can occur while driving or doing tasks at work and make it difficult to use their hands effectively. It seems that the tension response due to anxiety sometimes causes people’s arms and hands to cramp up, causing difficulty in moving fingers or even a feeling of intense pain in the hands. This is a distressing symptom, but like other anxiety related pains always fades away when the anxiety is reduced. There is also no permanent or long-term damage, even though there have been some clients who stated that the pain and cramping makes it impossible to control their hands. In this case, treating the pain is not necessary and instead the focus should solely be on reducing one’s anxiety and allowing the muscles and nerves to relax to their normal state.
When Anxiety Increases Pain
Besides being the source of pain, anxiety is often reported as being a reason that other pain gets intensified. To be more accurate, the perception of pain seems to be amplified by high anxiety. There have been quite a few people I have worked with in counseling who have had a chronic injury or pain condition who have noted that when they are more stressed, their pain increases. While there is no doubt that this is a common occurrence, the mechanism for why is likely complicated. For instance, anxiety does not necessarily do anything to areas of the body where chronic pain is coming from. Take spinal pain for instance. If a person has pain originating from this area, anxiety is likely not causing any kind of physical change to the spine that would cause pain. Knee pain is another example. Chronic knee pain sufferers may notice their pain is worse when they are anxious, but anxiety is not known for causing joints like the knee to ache. What is likely happening is that these areas are experiencing much of the same pain they usually do, but we are more aware of it due to anxiety increasing our awareness of our own body. Anxiety causes our brain to look at “what is wrong right now?” Even if something like an injury we have had for years is not the cause of anxiety in the moment, our brain seems to catalogue this as something that is wrong “right now” and needs to be focused on. So, we may have someone who’s pain is worsened when anxious because their mind is focused on it as something that is a problem that needs to be addressed. The issue is that most chronic pain does not need to be addressed in the moment, in fact it is mostly adapted to in non-anxious times as something to ignore to a degree. While lowering anxiety is the primary goal to deal with these pain issues, I believe there is another way to handle it.
Getting Comfortable with the Discomfort
Pain that is caused by anxiety is definitely uncomfortable, but like all other symptoms of anxiety, the discomfort is not dangerous. Typical pain in our body is our body trying to get our attention to something that needs addressing, but anxiety related pain is not pain that needs to be fixed. The pain itself is not telling us anything important except that we need to calm our mind, the sources of pain in the body are not in need of attention. Since there is nothing to fix with the pain, it can be beneficial to use it as a chance to get comfortable with discomfort. Minor to moderate discomfort is much more manageable if we take it for what is actually happening, and not focus on the fact that it just hurts. For instance, a tension headache from anxiety is usually not very painful. If we approach it mindfully and give the pain a small amount of attention for a few moments, we notice it is not that bad and can be compartmentalized well if we do not give it too much ammunition with negative thoughts like, “I hate having headaches”, “this means my anxiety is bad”, etc. If you are experiencing pain caused by high anxiety try sitting in it and really analyzing how uncomfortable it is, before moving on to other things.
If you would like to learn more about the many tools that improve mental health, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.