We often complain of the stress of work or life, yet, what is stress, really? The term ‘stress’ is most often used to describe feelings of nervousness, tension, anxiety, or being under pressure. These are all psychological aspects of stress. They express feelings. Yet people also experience physical effects from stress. Amongst the most common physical effects of stress, we count headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, and low energy levels.
One seldom-mentioned yet very relevant physical effect from stress is an increase in levels of pain we experience.
The Physical Effects of Stress: A Study
A study conducted on a number of healthy young men was aimed at determining their response to pain when subjected to psychological stress. The study found that when the subjects were subjected to acutely stressful situations, their sensitivity towards pain tended to change. The more stress they were under, the more difficult they found it to modulate pain. This implies that acute stress impacts your pain experience negatively. In other words, the more stressed you are, the worse pain you experience.
This does not mean that your pain is actually worse, however. In fact, the study revealed that there was no visible effect on the subjects’ pain threshold or their tolerance. What happened, however, was that their pain modulation decreased. In other words, there was a decrease in the body’s pain inhibition capability.
This, however, leaves the question: how, exactly, can stress increase pain?
The Physiology of Stress and Pain
Your body has a built-in ability to manage stress. Stress itself can be physiological, psychological, or environmental in nature. This response to stress is automatic, and something we have no control over. It is known as the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response.
When under stress, the following happens to your body:
- Your pain threshold temporarily increases.
- Your heart rate increases.
- Your body becomes tensed up (to either fight or run).
- You are prone to more rapid breathing.
- Your liver produces more glucose to give your body the energy it needs.
- Body functions not essential for fighting or running slow down or shut down (like the gastrointestinal tract).
This process is your body’s coping mechanism, and once a threat has ended, cortisol and adrenaline production returns to normal, as do other functions.
Long-term stress, however, creates problems for this system that may ultimately result in Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).
Chronic Stress and Adrenal Fatigue
When stress persists, in other words, it becomes chronic, the adrenal glands need to keep up, or even increase their cortisol production.
Pregnenolone, a hormone manufactured mainly by the adrenal glands from cortisol, is the precursor for most of your hormones. This includes progesterone (the precursor of cortisol), estrogen, testosterone, and others.
During a period of constant stress, the NEM Stress Response requires more cortisol, so more and more cortisol is manufactured from pregnenolone in order to meet the need. The result is that less of this crucial hormone is available for the manufacture of other essential hormones. As a result, a hormonal imbalance can occur.
In addition, during this period of prolonged, heightened cortisol production, your digestive system is negatively impacted and thereby your immune system as well.
Prolonged cortisol production suppresses the immune system and inflammatory pathways, thereby putting you at risk for illness and disease. Additionally, as your digestion is compromised when higher levels of cortisol are secreted, you may be confronted with bloating, gas, constipation, or diarrhea. These are symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), also referred to an as leaky gut syndrome.
Due to the constant production of cortisol and thus the continued higher levels of glucose in your body, your pancreas secretes more insulin into your system, until it is no longer able to do so. This can leave your body insulin resistant and in danger of developing diabetes.
The adrenal glands are also impacted by the constant, heightened demand for cortisol. At some point, the adrenal glands are no longer able to keep up this production level, and adrenal fatigue sets in. The consequences, especially during the latter stages of this condition, are debilitating.
Some of the symptoms encountered during advanced adrenal fatigue include:
- Severe pain (lower back, legs, abdomen)
- Severe vomiting and diarrhea
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
How Does Adrenal Fatigue Impact Pain?
Pain is perceived in part by the hypothalamus, which sends pain signals to the autonomic nervous system. It is, essentially, the link between the endocrine system and central nervous system. One of its main functions is the secretion of releasing-and-inhibiting hormones that result in the starting or stopping of the production of other hormones throughout the body. This includes cortisol in the adrenal glands. In this way, the hypothalamus is responsible for most of your bodily functions and ensures balance in the body.
One of the hormones found in the hypothalamus is dopamine. Its main functions include inhibiting the release of growth hormone, modulating your motor control centers, and activating your brain’s reward centers. When under constant stress, your dopamine production is reduced, as is the case with other hormones due to the increase in cortisol production. A decline in your dopamine levels leads to many of the symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue, including depression, constant fatigue, and anxiety. Low dopamine activity also influences your pain tolerance levels.
Studies show that people in pain undergoing severe stress tend to feel the pain more acutely. This is not necessarily because the pain has gotten worse.
Instead, stressed people feeling increased pain may be due to lowered dopamine levels. Stress increases cortisol which takes pregnenolone from other hormones, reducing dopamine production. Thus, your body’s ability to modulate pain is affected, leaving you feeling like your pain is more severe than it is.
Thus, increased feelings of pain are physical effects from stress.
This leads to the question: what can you do about it?