Stress, Pain & The Brain

Mind-body interaction has an impact on how we feel pain

By Paul Bolger. Chartered Physiotherapist at Nano Physiotherapy, Kilkenn(

Descartes was wrong – the mind and the body are not separate. There is remarkable overlap. How we feel and what we think does have a measurable, biological and chemical impact on our body. Things that occur in the body do impact on what we think and how we feel. So, in the world of pain – feelings, stress and our thoughts play a very important role.

Last week we explored the role that inflammation and stress can play in sensitising our ‘pain system’ – nerve endings become more sensitive in the presence of inflammation, making them more likely to send signals up to the brain.

There are other ways that stress and our emotional state can impact our pain system.


Fight or Flight – Seeking Safety

You could say that when we are stressed our body and mind do not feel safe – we feel under threat.

We could call stress “healthy stress” when it occurs in short, sharp bouts that are over as quickly as they come on, and don’t occur too frequently.

These days, however, there is a lot of “unhealthy stress”. Longer, drawn out, repetitive stressors that arise from things like unhealthy relationships, financial strains or other day-to-day stressors can become a problem.



When we are stressed, we become more vigilant – more tuned into potential threats around us (a sound might make us jump or something in the corner of our eye might startle us).

In a sense, we are on the lookout for danger. Any sensory information, such as things we see, hear or feel, might be perceived, subconsciously, in a more threatening way.

This is where pain comes into the mix.


Pain is a Protector

Pain is, first and foremost, a protector. You could think of it like a guard dog, warning us of any potential danger in our body.

It makes sense that, when we are highly vigilant and subconsciously on the lookout for danger, our pain system (and the guard dog that is pain) may be triggered more easily than when we are relaxed and at ease. That stretch of our lower back, that pressure in our hip or that cracking joint may appear more threatening than it really is.

None of this is to say that stress is the CAUSE of pain – but it can turn up the volume, it sensitises the system and makes that guard dog more likely to bark.


Reduce Stress to Reduce Pain to Reduce Stress

As anyone who has suffered from significant pain knows – pain can be stressful. As we now know, stress tends to turn up the volume on pain. It can be a cruel cycle – with pain impacting stress which impacts pain which impacts stress, etc. etc…

Some good news is that, for some people suffering from pain, finding time to destress and practice relaxation techniques may reduce pain. Less pain may lead to less stress. It is another option available to us to try to reduce the impact of pain, particularly persistent pain.

What do you find helps to put you at ease? We will explore some options for reducing the impact of stress in the next article.

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