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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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

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When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
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