Chronic Pain and Anxiety – What’s the Connection?

Chronic Pain and Anxiety - What's the Connection?

We’ve known for a while that chronic pain and anxiety have it in them to fuel each other. It’s not uncommon for people who experience chronic pain to also experience anxiety but up until recently, little was understood about the relationship.

Research published recently in the journal Biological Psychiatry has removed some of the mystery, offering new hope for the treatment of pain, as well as anxiety. The study found that a neurotransmitter in the body called … ready? … here we go … pituitary adenylate cyclase activating polypeptide (‘PACAP’) is released in response to stress and is also elevated in response to chronic pain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that help send information between cells.

For neurotransmitters to do their job well, their levels have to be just right – not too high and not too low. When PACAP is elevated, we see symptoms of pain, anxiety or both.  In previous research by members of the same research team, it was found that PACAP was elevated in women who had post-traumatic stress.

Here’s how it works. PACAP is found along one of the nervous system’s pathways to the brain. The pathway travels from the spinal cord to the amygdala, which is the seat of anxiety and emotions.

The researchers noticed that when there is chronic pain it’s not unusual to also see an increase in anxious behaviours – but – when the pathways for PACAP are blocked (effectively reducing the levels of PACAP), both anxious behaviour and pain are significantly decreased.

‘By targeting this [PACAP’s] regulator and pathway we have opportunities to block both chronic pain and anxiety disorders,’ – Victor May, Ph.D., senior author of study and professor neurological sciences at the University of Vermont.

The research team is now turning their attention to developing small molecule compounds that can reduce levels of PACAP.

‘This would be a completely different approach to using benzodiazepine and opiods – it’s another tool in the arsenal to battle chronic pain and stress-related behavioral disorders.’ – Victor May.

Whether chronic pain and anxiety occur together or separately, their intrusion into lives can be relentless. When they appear, they have a wide reach – for those who love someone who has to live with pain or anxiety, the struggle is also very real. Hopefully, this research brings us closer to finding an effective, safe way to manage pain and anxiety.

16 Comments

Dave Topper T

Caffeine is my disaster. One night I ended up in the ER from the anxiety. I had my triggers but the caffeine was the catalyst. But sometimes you’re in a position where an anxiety attack just has to be ridden. This last time ( I work overnight ) I had an attack ( post traumatic stress from current events? ) and had no choice but to ride it. I had the anxiety, the dizziness, the upset stomach, the whole nine. Luckily a friend was also working and we got to talking about other stuff, and had a few laughs. That made me feel remarkably better. Does laughing set off different chemicals in the body? It really tapered off after that. But the fibro took off. But HEY beats the anxiety. So is laughter the best medicine? All honesty here. I refuse medicating any of this short of Ibuprofen ( I prefer my liver and do not use acetaminophen ) for pain. I read about Cymbalta, oh the HORROR. Nope not gonna do it.

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Akanksha

At the time of annexity I feel pain in my head . right behind the eyes. What can I do to get rid of it?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

If you are sure that your pain is from anxiety, breathe strong deep breaths. I know it might sound simplistic, but let me explain. Anxiety is a physiological response. When your brain senses that there might be threat (this doesn’t mean there is danger – sometimes the brain hits the panic button unnecessarily), it surges the body with a number of different neurochemicals, including adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone). These neurochemicals are designed to make you faster, more alert and stronger so that you can deal with any potential threat. When there is no need to fight or no need to flee, there is nothing to burn up these neurochemicals so they build up. You will find a more detailed description of this here https://www.heysigmund.com/dealing-with-anxiety/. This is why anxiety comes with the physical symptoms.

Strong deep breathing activates something called the relaxation response. This is a physiological response that neutralises the fight or flight neurochemicals. When this happens, the physical symptoms will start to ease. The problem is that because the brain is so busy during an anxiety attack, it can be hard to remember to breathe strong deep breaths (in for 3, hold for 1, out for 3). To deal with this, practice strong deep breathing a couple of times a day. You only need to do a few breaths at a time. This will help the response to become more automatic so it will be easier to do when you need it.

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Alysha

Hey! Thanks for this. My gp wants me to attend pain clinics but they’re held 2 1/2 hours away and i don’t enjoy long distance travel. She doesn’t get that attending will cause anxiety which will increase the pain which increases the anxiety…

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Lori

This info sounds promising. As a chronic pain patient, I’m not seeking drugs but I am seeking pain relief. If the answer was simply to stand on my head 5 minutes a day, I would do it (well, maybe not ‘simply’)! My question though is this. What about patients, like myself, that have been taking opiates for 25 years and benzodiazaines for 10 years? I have already been through hell coming off opiates due to DEA & CDC pressure. I’ve heard the coming off the benzos is even more difficult. I just hope there is some built in help for us to make these switches.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Coming of benzos is difficult, but with the right support it can definitely be done. It’s really important that it’s done closely with the a doctor. It sounds as though you’ve already done some tough stuff – you have what it takes to do this. I wish you all the best.

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Jasmin Beck

Lori,
I have also been on Benzos for over 30 years, mainly Valium nd Xanax.
I was withdrawn under medical supervision, in hospital and no side affects -over a period of 2 months gradual withdrawal.
I was put on Clonazapan late last year and my new psychiatrist is trying to wean me off that also, but because of sleep issues and and the positive results of combining it with melotonin, he is keeping me on it, until the Pain clinic does their procedures on my back and I see the sleep specialist.
If successful he will gradually withdraw me and HOPE for the best.
I have had no negative side-effects due to gradual withdrawal, Trust your doctor and good luck.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thanks so much Robert. It makes so much sense why you would feel as though you are on a knife edge when you’re in pain from your autoimmune arthritis. I hope research like this is able to move towards finding ways to bring relief for you.

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Robert Hammel

I suffer from autoimmune arthritis. When I flare and the pain level is high, it often feels like being on an emotional knife edge.

Thank you for a great article. Sharing.

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Ang Honeyb

I think like a lot of therapists I’ve felt the connection existed for a long but to have tangible clinical evidence is fantastic. As stated the link is self fuelling, chronic pain begets anxiety, enduring anxiety begets chronic pain.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

I hear you Ang! There’s a lot we know intuitively, or through personal experience but it’s always great to have the evidence, and to know that science is working on moving things forward.

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Leanne

Any suggestions for what sufferers can do in the meantime?
Currently trying CBT, but it’s been a long gruelling road of severe anxiety and chronic pain.
Thanks

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Jasmin Beck

Once again some brilliant info. Where do you get your research from -used to be able to when I worked for The Black Dog,
This info is great, just wish my doctor here at the Home would read it.
Suffering from severe back pain -new procedures being done shortly and unable to have any more ops, plus complex PTSD, boy did I identify.
Thank you so much for your dedication and help-it should be bottled

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thanks Jasmin! Sometimes new research can take a little while to filter through. The good doctors will be onto it though. The references for the research are hyperlinked in the article – just click on the words in dark blue print and that will take you there.

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We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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