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Whether it’s another exhausting election cycle or the impending zombie apocalypse, many of us are a bit more stressed and anxious lately than usual. Intense times, it’s totally normal to start experiencing some physical symptoms that might feel abnormal if you don’t realize their source. Some of your old injuries might start hurting again, your back or neck may become stiffer or achier, and if you’re already dealing with some kind of pain, that may become worse.
Stress and/or anxiety can increase or decrease normal pain thresholds directly or indirectly. Prolonged stress will tend to decrease a person’s pain threshold so that the exact same physical stimuli might become more painful than usual, or something that didn’t used to hurt might begin hurting. People with persistent pain are often aware of how a stressful day at work can cause a flare-up, but far fewer people realize that stress and depression are two of the biggest predictors of painful flare-ups in people with acute low back pain.
Stress can also decrease pain thresholds by influencing behavior. Most of us know that a stressful day, week, or decade can make it harder to get to sleep or stay asleep. Lack of sleep and non-restful sleep are significant risk factors in developing physical pain and prolonging it. Being tired can also make it far more difficult to push yourself to get some of the physical activity our bodies need to stay happy and healthy.
In these stressful times, it’s perfectly normal to begin experiencing all sorts of symptoms that might seem as if they came out of nowhere. That’s all the more reason to take care of yourself in all the ways you can. Spend time engaging in meaningful activities, talk to the people you care about, make time to be mindful or to relax, practice good sleep hygiene, ask for and accept more help from others, and get in some movement where you can. You’re not broken and you’re not falling apart—we promise.
By Matthew Danziger