How Stress Can Intensify Experience Of Physical Pain

We have already seen in other articles that I have published on this site that stress leading can have a numbing effect and reduce the experience of pain (i.e. have an analgesic effect), animal studies suggest that both chronic and acute stress can also intensify the experience of pain (i.e. have a hyperalgesic effect).

In the case of chronic, unavoidable stress, studies involving rats suggested that this hyperalgesic effect may be mediated by decreased dopamine activity within the brain as well as decreased central 5-HT activity (Quintero et al.).

Furthermore, exposure to such stress in rats has also been found to reduce their sensitivity to morphine thus rendering it less efficient as an analgesic (pain-killer).

It has also been found that children who suffer recurring stomach pains experience a reduction in their pain-thresholds as a result of stress (Dutton et al.,2007). Other studies have produced similar findings and research shows that not only can stress intensify abdominal pain but may also disrupt the digestive system in ways that give rise to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, diarrhoea and acid reflux.

Physical symptoms may also be brought on by intense emotions. In some cases, this can result in a diagnosis of somatic symptom disorder. Emotions that may give rise to such disorders include:

  • repressed anger
  • guilt and shame
  • anxiety 
  • depression

Let’s briefly look at each of these in turn:

REPRESSED ANGER:

Anger stimulates the production of adrenaline which has numerous effects, including the increase of muscular tension which may give rise to muscular pain when our anger is not well managed.

GUILT AND SHAME:

One of the most emotional crippling results of severe and protracted interpersonal childhood trauma is the intense feelings of (irrational) shame we find ourselves constantly afflicted by in adulthood. Research carried out by Bastian suggests that individuals may actually seek out the experience of physical pain as a way of reducing their experience of psychological pain. Many psychologists believe that this is one of the main reasons why some people, especially those who have experienced chronic, interpersonal trauma during their childhoods, self-harm.

DEPRESSION:

Research suggests that there is a link between depression, abnormal pain processing, increased perception of pain and a diminished tolerance of pain (e.g. Marsala et al., 2015:  Berna et al., 2010)

Other research suggests that headaches can be secondary to depression. One theory is that these headaches are caused by muscular tension and individuals who suffer from them may describe the pain as, for example, like having a tight metal band around the head; feeling like the head is being crushed in a vice; a heavy weight or an intense pressure). Such headaches are also commonly reported to be worse in either the mornings or during the evenings (The National Headache Foundation). In relation to this, you may be interested in reading my previously published article: The Link Between Headaches And Childhood Trauma).

Often, people who are very depressed describe the world, metaphorically’ as appearing grey or lacking vivid colour. Interestingly, there now exists some preliminary research that suggests some clinically depressed individuals may, as a result of their condition, also literally see the world differently due to an impaired ability to perceive visual contrasts, giving the world a ‘blurry’ appearance (Bubl et al., 2010).

Both depression and anxiety are also associated with other physical problems including, muscular tension and pain, back pain, fatigue, stomach complaints and digestive problems.

REFERENCES

Bubl E, et al. “Seeing Gray When Feeling Blue? Depression Can Be Measured in the Eye of the Diseased,” Biological Psychiatry (July 2010): Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 205–08.

Brock Bastian, Cleansing the Soul by Hurting the Flesh: The Guilt-Reducing Effect of Pain; Psychological Science 22(3) 334–335, 2011 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610397058

Dufton LM, Konik B, Colletti R, Stanger C, Boyer M, Morrow S, Compas BE. Effects of stress on pain threshold and tolerance in children with recurrent abdominal pain. Pain2008;136(1-2):38–43. doi: doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2007.06.012