April 24, 2023
Endometriosis – The Pain Stress Cycle
Needless to say having Endo is tough, not just physically but mentally and emotionally. Having an invisible chronic pain disease can lead to stress, anxiety depression, and other mental health disorders.
This blog will focus on the chronic pain cycle, and ways to hack your nervous system to lessen symptoms associated with anxiety.
What would you say if I were to ask you what psychosomatic illness was? Images of imagined symptoms may come to mind. But in reality, psychosomatic illnesses have very real symptoms caused by the body’s stress response. Have you ever experienced butterflies in your belly when nervous, felt exhaustion when your mind is racing, or suffered with tension headaches when you’re rushed off your feet? All very real symptoms, I’m sure you’d agree.
Endo can cause a lot of mental anguish – from the physical flare-ups to the social isolation, relationship issues and working with unpredictable energy and pain levels to mention but a few. Very often we’ve held the view that the mind and body are two separate entities but science is constantly finding this isn’t the case, and our stress levels can exacerbate physical symptoms and create new ones on top.
So, how can we lessen the physical symptoms of anxiety? One answer is by looking to our nervous systems.
The autonomic nervous system regulates the body’s involuntary functions, taking care of heart rate, rate of respiration, digestion, pupillary response, sexual arousal and urination, all unconsciously without our effort.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the three branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and the enteric nervous system.
The SNS general function is to mobilize the bodies fight, flight, or freeze response. Our body prepares to engage with a threat, drawing blood and nutrients away from the internal organs to the extremities. Digestion is interrupted, heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and respiration increases. The important thing to note here is that this vital system is activated not just through real physical danger, but through mental stresses such as time constraints, disagreements on social media, and the everyday battle to keep up with life’s fast pace. Add to this the physical pain associated with endometriosis, and we have a ramped up nervous system that doesn’t allow the body to thrive, just survive! The body was never meant to spend long periods of time in the stress response, and this is where the parasympathetic nervous system comes into play. This system tends to be opposing to the SNS, it is the system of rest and digest. Blood flow is directed back to the internal organs, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and the body replenishes itself. The body feels it is safe to turn off the “life saving alarm calls” and get back to nourishing the body.
If all this is automatic, then how can we break the cycle of pain – stress – more pain?
Nature has given us a “hack” into our nervous system, and it’s our breath. Respiration is an automatic life giving action. But we’ve also been given the ability to consciously breathe. Research is finding that even a few minutes of conscious breathing a day is enough to show marked improvement in physical pain and the stress levels that can lead to more pain. When we consciously slowly and deeply brief for several minutes, we deactivate the SNS, and activate the PNS. The body comes back into homeostasis, and the body can begin to balance out the effects of adrenaline and cortisol (stress) hormones.
The mindfulness based stress reduction program (MBSR) developed by Dr Jon Kabot- Zimm, has found the 4-7-8 breath to be excellent for activating the PSN.
The breath pattern works like this: inhale for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, exhale slowly for a count of 8.
The program has found a huge benefit for individuals with the following conditions: ADHD, stress, anxiety, fatigue, depression, chronic headaches, high blood pressure and sleep problems.
If something as simple as manipulating our breath can have such a marked improvement on our perceived stress levels, which could be leading to more physical symptoms and pain, then this is surely worthy of our attention. Keeping a diary of pain symptoms can also be a great way to find out whether some of the symptoms are being worsened by anxiety and stress, and can be a step in the direction to feeling more in control, removing stressors and managing your time.
I hope this post has been informative please let us know if you have a breath practice and how it may be benefiting you. There are some great apps to support you – including one I use personally called Breath, where you can set timers and alarms, and choose from 3 different breathing patterns including the 4-7-8 breath.
Our Mindful Monday sessions of uninteruppted mindful movement are there to support you, and anyone else, with bringing breathing into your stress management toolkit.
You can find more helpful advice at The Stress Management Society The Stress Management Society – From Distress to De-Stress
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