by Dr. Peter Borten, Acupuncturist and Herbalist at The Dragontree
I believe the impact of stress on our health – unlike, say, smoking – seems kind of vague to most people. We all know it feels better to be relaxed than stressed, but it’s uncommon for us to have a thought as linear as “my health declines when I’m stressed” or “I need to lower my stress level in order to get over this health problem.” The truth is, stress can degrade our health and quality of life to a degree that is sometimes profound. In this article, I’ll explain how this occurs – especially in relation to pain. If you missed the previous three installments in this series, you can read by clicking the link in the article title.
Stress and Pain
Stress contributes to pain through several mechanisms. On a physiological level, stress plays a significant role in the development of inflammation. Stress raises our blood pressure, causing microscopic tears and pits in the lining of our blood vessels, which activates the body's inflammatory responses. These events also contribute to thickening of the blood through the presence of cholesterol (which the body sends in as a response to the vessel damage, sort of like caulk), elevated blood sugar, immune cells, and stickier platelets (the blood cells that form clots). This process makes the body less efficient at both the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to our cells and the removal of cellular debris, factor that perpetuate inflammation and pain. From the Chinese medical model we began with, it's easy to see how this process is a form of stagnation, which ultimately results in pain and/or reduced function.
Next, stress contributes to pain by depleting us. Chronic stress means long-term engagement of various body systems – particularly the nervous system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, and immune system – in a way that demands energy, plain and simple. In a depleted state, the body is less effective at managing this pain (and the many related mechanisms discussed in the previous paragraph), so the cycle continues.
In addition, the more tired, stressed, and achy we get, the less likely we are to do any of the things that might help end this cycle. It is easy to see how stress contributes to pain indirectly by influencing our lifestyle. It supports poor eating habits (we tend not to take the time to cook a good meal for ourselves when we're stressed or in pain, but instead grab what's easy and less nutritious). It degrades the quality and duration of our sleep (which means less of the much-needed relaxation, repair, and replenishment that occur in sleep). It makes us more likely to forget to drink enough water, to stretch, to maintain good posture, to exercise, and to respect our limits throughout the day. And it leads us to deprioritize "soul nourishing" activities that are proven to reduce pain and inflammation, such as playing, spending time with loved ones, sharing affection, partaking in a spiritual practice, and helping our community. If you are in pain, it is vital that you start doing these things. Just take baby steps if that’s all you’re capable of. Fight to get your life back.
Looking at the mind-body continuum, stress contributes to pain because stress is resistance, resistance is stagnation, and stagnation hurts. (Due to our varying capacities to perceive pain, stagnation isn't always perceptible as pain [yet!], but once there is pain, there must be stagnation.) This may sound a little New Agey, but please bear with me.
When we are stressed, there is something about our circumstances that we are resisting - too much to do, not enough time, being underpaid, things moving too fast, feeling out of control or unsafe, disliking someone, feeling others don't approve of us or respect us, etc. By definition, it is a stress on us because of our resistance. (Certain situations may be positive stressors or eustressors if we feel capable of managing them and/or feel a sense of challenge at taking them on, like getting married or playing sports. Our mindset is the key. Generally speaking, these events have less potential to deplete us, and, indeed, often make us stronger. But even positive stress can become negative stress when we push too hard and exceed our means.)
The resistance that occurs when we are stressed – which is like clenching, bracing, or tightening up – inhibits the flow of life. I mean this both physically and figuratively. Both our muscles and our mind become rigid and inflexible. Conversely, when we let go of this resistance (which essentially means accepting the reality of our circumstances), things begin to flow freely again, pain dissipates, and a sense of ease and flexibility returns.
You may not be able in this moment to entirely relinquish your resistance to everything about your life that isn't quite the way you want it to be, but it's a task worth committing yourself to. It begins with the recognition that your resistance itself never contributes productively to improving the situation. It only drains our energy and makes us uncomfortable. Why not take a deep breath right now and let go of whatever tension you’re carrying around? Now keep doing this, all the time, for the rest of your life. Remember.
Good luck and be well!