The Stress-Pain Connection

Stress and chronic pain have a complex relationship. Living with pain day after day can be stressful. It can also lead to mental health problems. In fact, one-third of adults with arthritis have anxiety or depression.

Two younger women talking over mugs of coffee

When pain leads to stress

When you have chronic pain, it’s always on your mind. Living with chronic pain can make you feel like you’re not able to do some of the activities you want to do. For example, people with arthritis can have trouble with simple tasks such as bending, carrying groceries, or climbing stairs. If you’ve had a difficult time finding ways to manage your pain, it can take a toll on your emotions—you may feel angry, frustrated, anxious, or depressed.

How stress can be a pain

Stress can make chronic pain worse. Stress causes your muscles to tense or spasm, which increases pain. When you feel stressed, levels of the hormone cortisol rise. This can cause inflammation and pain over time.

What you can do

Many of the steps you can take to control stress will also reduce your pain. Here are some lifestyle changes that can improve both:

  • Stay active. Increasing your physical activity reduces stiffness and boosts mood. Try low-impact activities such as biking, swimming, and walking.

  • Sleep well. Getting enough sleep at night is important for your physical and emotional well-being. Try going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Avoid caffeine late in the day so it doesn’t affect your sleep.

  • Find distractions. When you’re in pain, find ways to take your mind off it. You could take a walk, watch a movie, or meet up with a friend. Activities that you enjoy doing can help you better cope with pain.

If you have chronic pain along with stress, anxiety, or depression, talk with your doctor. Your doctor can make sure you’re on the best treatment plan for your condition and symptoms. Your doctor can also refer you to a mental health provider who can help you develop new coping skills, which can make a difference in how you feel in your body and mind.