How many times have you said the phrase “I’ve been worried sick!” in your life?
Well as it turns out, there may be some truth in that!
Our lives are filled with stress - everything from our jobs, to our relationships, to our finances - we’ve become pretty normalized to high-stress levels and busy schedules. But our bodies? Not so much.
Research shows that there’s a very real physiological response to emotional and mental stress that takes a tax on physical health, and is linked to a variety of chronic health issues including depression, cardiovascular disease, and yes, you guessed it, even joint pain.
To fully understand how stress impacts your joints and what you can do about it you need to understand what stress is and the link between stress and inflammation.
WHAT IS STRESS?
Plain and simple: stress is the body’s response to a potentially dangerous situation. Stress tells the body something is wrong through the release of chemicals and hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline from the body’s sympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is made up of a network of nerves, brain structures and hormones, and together they work to regulate heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure in the presence of stress. (1)
This stress response is known as the “fight-or-flight” response, and its function is to ensure survival.
You’ve probably heard this example before: if you were being chased by a lion, this fight-or-flight response is what would kick in and tell you to stand your ground or get lost, quick!
In certain situations--like a house fire or even a job interview--this response helps bring focus to the task at hand in order to get through it safely. Digestion slows (eating is not top priority!), and glucose is pumped into the bloodstream for an extra boost of energy. (2)
When stress is acute, as in it derives from unpredictable or novelty situations (like a big speech or a car accident), the body jumps into fight-or-flight mode to get through the stressful situation.
But then after, it flips a switch and turns on the body’s “rest-and-digest” response - otherwise known as the parasympathetic nervous system.
Where the sympathetic nervous system is about quick bursts of energy and using up the body resources to move quickly, the parasympathetic slows everything down to maintain homeostasis: digestion increases and relaxes, heart rate and breathing slow down.
In a perfect world, your body is very well capable of jumping from one response to the other with no problem. The problem, however, is that our bodies weren’t meant to handle the chronic everyday stress that comes from modern living.
HOW STRESS CAUSES INFLAMMATION
When you’re constantly under stress or feeling anxious, it takes a physical toll on your body.
In a one-off stressful situation, your body prioritises the emergency (or the perceived emergency)at hand and suppresses “non-essential” functions such as digestion and immune response. But with chronic stress, the immune system releases pro-inflammatory cytokines to help with the perceived threat.
The problem is, it doesn’t matter to the body if it’s physical danger or emotional stress: all it sees is that something is getting to you and it needs to help out!
As stress continues, these pro-inflammatory cytokines are upregulated, meaning there’s more and more of them in your system, and that’s what triggers low-level inflammation in the body. And we know that inflammation is an underlying factor to illness. Research shows that inflammation is a common pathway of stress-related diseases, like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. (3)
STRESS + YOUR JOINTS
It’s this same stress-related inflammation that can wreak havoc on your joints. Those-inflammatory cytokines that are released and accumulated during stressful situations can, over time, inflame the joints, causing pain and stiffness.
Research suggests that it may be this same inflammatory response that explains why people with rheumatoid arthritis tend to suffer from other stress-related diseases, like cardiovascular disease, which can shorten their lifespans. (4)
What’s worse, is that not only can stress cause arthritis, but the reverse is also true: arthritis and joint pain can cause discomfort which in itself can cause stress--feeding into this never-ending vicious cycle.
Therefore, it becomes crucial to properly manage stress, in order to keep inflammation low and function as optimally as possible. So how do you do that?
HOW TO TAKE CONTROL
While it would be great to tell you to quit your job and go on a year-long beach vacation, the reality is that we’re all exposed to everyday stress whether we want to be or not. What makes the difference, then, is how you approach and manage your daily stress: what practices do you put in place to limit stress? How do you find calm in your day? Here are some tips to help reduce your stress:
●Meditate: Research shows that regular meditation can help to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and pain. (5) Start small: commit to 10 minutes a day for 30 days, with the help of an app or a guided meditation and work your way up.
●Spend time in nature: A study found that 20 minutes in nature can help to lower stress hormones, specifically cortisol. (6) Aim to get out at least three times a week. You can take a walk around the block, stroll through the park, or just sit outside and enjoy the view.
●Move your body: Take a walk, do some yoga or try a workout class (there are lots of great ones online!) to get your body moving. The key is to find something you like so that you can stick with it. If it’s not fun, you’ll abandon it, so be sure to find an activity that you actually enjoy doing.
●Spend time with people and things you love: friends, family, hobbies. Choose to spend your time doing things that replenish you and give you joy, life is too short to always be worrying about the daily grind!
●Identify what’s causing you stress: Are you able to change your situation? Sometimes the fix is small but impactful: take a look at the parts of your life that weigh you down and cause anxiety. Is there room for change? If not, can you make any improvements or put some of these stress management practices into place?
While stress may not be the only factor causing you pain ,or inflammation for that matter, it’s definitely worth addressing. Plus when it comes to health, mindset matters, and even the simple act of being able to change your perception of the situation can help you to better manage and cope!
How are you managing your stress and taking care of your health?
Hopefully, what you've learned here will inspire you to prioritise your mental wellbeing. You deserve it!