Once people start to experience back pain on a regular basis, their stress levels increase, leading to more tension and spasms. It’s no secret that stress takes a toll on our health. Researchers have confirmed these findings over and over. But, what you may not know is that one of the most common triggers, and barriers to relief of chronic back pain is stress.
Perhaps you’ve heard doctors talk about the stress response. In a nutshell, it’s the physical reaction our body has in order to quickly prepare to fight, or flee from a perceived danger. The interesting part is, whether the stressful event is a woolly mammoth chasing us down, or a work meeting that turns combative, our bodies react with the same response. A cascade of powerful chemicals is released into our systems, causing elevated heartbeat, increased blood pressure, plus muscle tension and spasms that most often focuses in the back, neck and shoulders.
To add, well, insult to injury, once people start to experience back pain on a regular basis, their stress levels increase, leading to more tension and spasms. This “pain cycle” continues as pain sufferers become more and more anxious about the chronic pain, and more and more timid about their daily activities. They will start limiting their movement, causing muscle weakening and decreased physical conditioning which, in turn, leads to more back pain. This cycle continues as more pain, fear and limited movement continues. Consequently, pain suffers will start to have other destructive responses such as depression, anxiety and social isolation, further increasing their stress levels.
So, now that we know the bad news, it’s time for the good. There is hope and help. Stress is something that, with the regular practice of new behaviors and skills, can be managed and greatly reduced. And, while there are multiple stress-reduction behaviors one can practice, here are five primary ones that many find very effective.
Manage Your Time Wisely
To some degree, most of us are guilty of trying to do too much in too little time. We take on too much at work, over-commit in our personal lives, or engage in the ever popular multi-tasking, a common habit which often leads to minimal success. To better manage your time, try the following tips:
- Make a List: Instead of thinking (and freaking out) about all you have to do, make a list. Determine which tasks are most important, and which can be addressed once you’ve got the big fish (more important tasks) under control.
- Break it Down: Instead of trying to tackle large projects all at once, break them down into smaller projects, and commit to focusing on each, one at a time.
- Delegate: Seriously. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can do it all yourself, or that you’re the only one who can do it right. You can’t and you aren’t.
Make Smart Lifestyle Choices
Certain lifestyle choices can help your body be more resilient to, and recover better from stress.
Here are some of the biggies you’ll want to be sure you are doing:
- Get Your Zzzz’s: Getting the proper amount of quality sleep is crucial in allowing your body to recover from stress.
- Eat Healthy: Be sure to eat a good balance of healthy foods, while limiting things like refined sugars, alcohol and caffeine. Equally important, make a conscious effort to sit down and eat in a relaxed setting. Eating on-the-go is a stress inducing no-no, so don’t do it!
- Move It: One of the best ways to relieve stress it to get moving. And it doesn’t have to be sweating it out in the gym, or running a marathon. Going for walks, doing gardening, playing with your kids/grandkids can all be great ways to get more active.
- Don’t smoke. Need I say more?
Take Time to Breathe…Deeply
As previously mentioned, when we encounter stress, our heart rate increases and our blood pressure rises. Deep breathing is a fast and very effective way to counter this automatic physiological response.
But, waiting until a stressor hits is not the ideal time to start using deep breathing. Deep breathing is something you should practice regularly. Taking just a few minutes out of your day to stop and take 4-5 deep breaths can make a significant impact on how your body responds to, and recovers from stressful events.
I call it taking a “breath-break” and it is really quite simple:
- Sit up straight, close your eyes, and place one hand on your stomach.
- Inhale slowly (to the count of 5) through your nose, feeling the breath begin in your belly and then work its way to your chest.
- Pause for a moment, then slowly (to the count of 6-7), exhale through your mouth.
- Repeat 4-5 times.
Seek Out Support
If you’re finding it difficult to manage your stress levels on your own, it’s important to ask for help. Seek support from people you trust, such as close family members and friends, or members of your church or other community organizations.
There are also various groups that offer support around specific stress-inducing situations such as illness, divorce, death of a loved one, or financial difficulties. Various stress-reduction programs are also offered in most communities, such as time-management courses, meditation classes, or even yoga classes with a strong focus on relaxation.
In conclusion, if you suffer from back pain, reducing your stress with the above skills might be just what the doctor ordered. Yes, it will take some practice and discipline to make these skills a habit and see real results. But, really, what have you got to lose but a whole lot of pain?