The Brain Body Connection – How Mental Health impacts Chronic Pain

The Brain Body Connection – How Mental Health impacts Chronic Pain

Senior woman sitting down in painUnderstand the link between mental health and inflammatory pain and discover strategies to improve both.

When you are in pain, do you find yourself feeling short-tempered, anxious, depressed…all of the above? How about when you are angry or frustrated with someone or a situation – does your pain flare up?  You’re not alone.

The bone-deep ache or throbbing, burning, stinging of an inflammatory flare-up can make you miserable. I know I get far less tolerant of even the slightest stress when I’m in pain. I will curse at the thing I dropped, causing me to have to bend to pick up. I will mutter under my breath, exude grunts of effort, and even cry out in frustration when I’m in pain and mobility is hindered.

A bit like the chicken and egg dilemma, which comes first? Pain and your emotions are so connected, it can be difficult to distinguish which started the cycle, right? For brain science nerds, both these issues actually start in the limbic brain, which is the seat of emotions, and the home of the body’s defense mechanisms. Being grumpy is often a natural response – maybe point that out to those who live with you! (or, better yet, get started on Haraka soon, so your grumpy days become a thing of the past…)

As the medical community continues to explore the complex relationship between mental health and chronic pain, it is becoming increasingly clear that the two are deeply connected. Chronic pain, particularly in cases of arthritis, can often lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. In turn, these conditions can exacerbate feelings of pain and discomfort, creating a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break. For those readers who like to dive deep into the medical studies, here is a great abstract about depression and inflammation from the NIH.

One reason for this connection is the role that inflammation plays in both physical and mental health. Inflammation is a natural response that occurs when the body is injured or under attack. However, when inflammation becomes chronic, it can lead to a host of health problems, including arthritis pain and mental health issues such as increased stress responses, anxiety, and depression.

Research has shown that people with higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood are more likely to experience changes in mood, behavior, and cognitive function. (In simple words - your inflammation may be why you can’t win at Scrabble these days or forget where you parked your car!)   In this interesting article, the Arthritis Foundation explores how stress contributes to and even worsens inflammation related to arthritis.

When it comes to chronic arthritis pain specifically, there are several ways in which mental health can impact physical symptoms. The symbiotic relationship going on in the brain means you are probably more depressed or anxious. The negative cycle kicks in, because when you don’t feel good, you are less likely to be active, or show interest in physical movement, which, in turn, worsens your arthritis pain over time. Stress states also cause you to develop muscle tension, which adds to the vicious cycle. Your pain gets worse, you get more stressed, more tense, and less active.

How to stop the Negative Cycles

  1. Engage in low impact, endorphin producting activities.Walking, swimming, or even just dancing for a few minutes can help.
  2. Take a yoga class. Find an instructor who can provide a yoga workout that is low stress on joints, and accommodates your limitations.Senior women in yoga class
  3. Medidate. Give yourself 15-30 minutes to meditate and breathe deeply. 
  4. Take a break. It is helpful to give your brain what it needs – a breath of fresh air outdoors if you can, or just a relaxing break with a few deep breaths. Or even just listen to soothing music while you gently stretch.
  5. Mindfulness is key. Knowing what is going on in your body by being mindful, puts you back in charge of your action, your thoughts, your feelings, and ultimately, you take charge of the pain cycles. Helping your body relax and release, you can gradually turn the cycle back to the positive, upward trend.
  6. Laughter IS still the best medicine. A hearty laugh creates a surge of positive hormones in your nervous system. A bit like water putting a fire out, sending happy hormones into a body that’s on fire with stress can turn the tide of the internal wave.  In this powerful podcast interview, Matt Iseman unpacks this topic, as well as others, in the pursuit of mental wellness. Matt, who is also a M.D. lives with RA and is a wonderful example of taking charge of life, despite a chronic illness. (by the way – in my humble opinion – watching American Ninja Warrior is such a positive, feel good show that it will almost always help you feel better, no matter how bad your pain.)Senior Man with family laughing
  7. Spend time with those you love. The physical touch, hug, or shared moments with loved ones has a powerful positive impact on your body's    hormones, too. Find time to be with those who make you happy, especially when you're in pain. Isolation is defeating, even though you feel you want to be alone.

Bottom line - when you feel better emotionally, the pain becomes easier to manage and it will ultimately diminish as you keep doing what you know is best for your body.

The connection between mental health and chronic pain is complex and multifaceted. For people living with chronic arthritis pain and inflammation, it is important to address both physical and emotional/mental aspects that either exacerbate your joint pain and stiffness or reduce it.

Having been a mindset coach, and now a mentor, for over 30 years, I continually remind people that YOU are in charge of YOU. Just accepting and then staying, in a victim role, and allowing life to just happen to you is no way to live. If you’ve allowed your pain to hold you back – it’s time to take charge. Consider adding Haraka to your regime and let us help you get back to living the life you want to be living.

Yesterday, on my morning walk, I ran into a wonderful woman who has fibromyalgia. She lost her ability to work during COVID and allowed emotional stress and pain to take charge of her life. MJ gained 80 pounds and found exercise difficult. But now, MJ has chosen to get back in the game – one short walk at a time. All it takes is a DECISION and a COMMITMENT. (You will see many similar stories on the ANW show mentioned earlier.)

How about you? What small step can you take to start truly living again?

We want to hear your story, too!

Till next time – here’s to your limber life!



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