Can stress cause increased sensitivity to pain?

Stress is your body’s natural response when under intense mental or physical pressure. Stress isn’t all bad, it does have its benefits. It can compel you to meet professional deadlines and reach important personal goals. But, high levels of stress can have a devastating impact on your psychological and physical health and wellbeing.

We also explain how feeling stressed out can cause increased sensitivity to pain and, in some cases, damage your overall health. We also provide stress management tips to help you combat stress and experience stress relief. 

What exactly is stress? 

Harvard Health reveals your reaction to stress is known as the flight or fight response and is a means of ensuring your survival.

The stress response begins in your brain. When you experience stress, the amygdala (the part of your brain that regulates emotions) releases a distress signal to your hypothalamus (another area of your brain). The hypothalamus then activates your nervous system by sending signals to your adrenal glands. These are small glands that sit on top of your kidneys. The adrenal glands pump the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into your bloodstream. As adrenaline circulates through your body, it creates several changes. 

Harvard Health states the first change that occurs in response to stress is an increased heart rate. Your heart starts to pump blood faster across your body and as this happens, your blood pressure rises. As a result, the small airways in your lungs expand and take in more oxygen. This leads to an increased breathing rate and more oxygen is delivered to your brain. The increase in oxygen to your brain allows you to become more alert and your senses become heightened.  

What causes stress? 

Stress can have many triggers. According to Mind, increased responsibilities, being under pressure, large changes and a lack of control over situations can induce stress. A lack of stimulation, work or change in your life can also trigger stress.   

Feeling stressed out can affect your overall health and increase your sensitivity to pain

Although stress can help you achieve deadlines or personal goals, prolonged stress can leave you feeling physically and mentally exhausted. The NHS refers to this state of mental and physical exhaustion as burnout. It is caused by a feeling of powerlessness and concern that a situation cannot be resolved. But the NHS states it is possible to overcome burnout by changing your environment and response to situations. 

Stress symptoms: what to look out for 

So, what stress symptoms should you be looking out for? The NHS states if you are constantly feeling anxious or overwhelmed and have trouble concentrating or sleeping, you could be suffering from high levels of stress. Moreover, other signs of stress include feeling irritable and experience a lack of self-confidence.   

If you are stressed, you might be turning to food for comfort or find that you’ve lost your appetite. The NHS adds stress may cause you to smoke or drink more often.   

How does stress affect your health generally?

Prolonged or chronic stress can have damaging health consequences on your immune system and your brain’s cerebrovascular (blood flow) system. Stress can weaken your immune system and increase your susceptibility to colds, flu and fatigue.    

Abundant evidence shows that chronic stress chips away at physical health, pushing blood pressure to dizzying heights and harming the heart. It plays a role in diabetes, asthma, and gastrointestinal disorders.

Harvard Health
Harvard Health states elevated levels of stress in your body can cause consistently high blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure can cause your heart muscle to weaken and thicken, as it forces your heart to pump blood faster. This can lead to heart failure.   

reveals chronic stress can lead to the development of disorders such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease and motor neuron disease. It may also influence the likelihood of developing multiple sclerosis.   

Feeling stressed out can cause increased sensitivity to pain   

Chronic stress can lead to increased levels of pain and in turn, chronic pain can leave you feeling stressed out. This works as a vicious cycle of stress and chronic pain, leaving little room for relief.

The NHS reveals common symptoms of stress, such as tensed muscles, can in fact aggravate pain by causing muscle stiffness and aches. Tensed muscles can also cause discomfort and tiredness. Ironically, stressful thoughts about your pain can also increase tension in your muscles and the intensity of pain you experience. Again, this builds a relentless cycle of tension, stress and chronic pain that is often difficult to break.  

World Sleep Day: An overweight woman struggles with poor sleep and joint pain in her knees.

Disrupted sleep induced by stress can also exacerbate your pain. Sleep deprivation can increase your sensitivity to pain by affecting how your brain perceives pain. The inextricable relationship between pain and sleeplessness is referred to as painsomnia. 

The term ‘painsomnia’ was first used by members of an online community to describe insomnia (sleeplessness) caused by chronic pain. If you are suffering from painsomnia, you are less likely to have restorative sleep. This can lead to symptoms such as poor concentration and memory, and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.  

A study published by the BMJ  found people experiencing stress triggers such as financial difficulties, relationships problems or grief were more likely to develop chronic pain. The study showed people who were overweight, female or suffering from depression or anxiety were also more likely to develop chronic pain.   

These studies suggest that there is a relationship between stress and increased sensitivity to pain, as well as the experience of chronic pain. 

Stress management: what can you do to combat stress?   

If you often turn to alcohol, caffeine or smoking to combat stress, it’s time to reconsider how you manage stress. Sadly, these unhealthy habits are not a solution for managing stress. The NHS refers form of stress management to this as avoidance behaviour.   

Stress can sometimes be caused by a feeling of a loss of control over your everyday life. But, taking control and finding ways to tackle your stress can help you manage your stress and reduce your pain.  

Stress management: keeping a diary can help you manage stress

If you’re unaware of exactly what is triggering your stress, it’s useful to write a diary and keep track of how you feel in stressful situations. The NHS advises keeping a stress management diary for at least two to four weeks. You can then review your stress management diary and establish what triggers your stress, helping you build a stress management plan.   

It’s essential to have “me time”. During this time, make sure your emails and notifications are switched off (if this applies to you). This break from the stress of work and screentime allows you to focus on yourself — and it can be for as short as 30 minutes every day.   

Stress relief tips to remember   

Meditation is another stress relief technique that you can do to combat stress. The deep breathing exercises used in meditation can lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of developing heart disease.   

Stress relief: Meditation can help you manage stress and provide stress relief.

Exercise can offer stress relief by releasing endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals that are produced by your body. These chemicals are responsible for boosting our mood and promote pain relief. Going for a walk every day or doing a sport can not only provide you with stress relief but can also alleviate your pain.

If you are struggling with stress, a counsellor or therapist can help support you and provide you with advice on stress management. If you would like to speak to a Consultant, please contact our team at Circle Health Group by calling us on 0808 101 0337 or through our online enquiry form.  


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