Not Surprisingly, Stress and Pain are Linked

Not Surprisingly, Stress and Pain are Linked

By Staff

If you have chronic pain, then you know well the role that stress plays in exacerbating it. The pressures of work, family, everyday life can weigh on a person. These stresses can have not only an emotional impact, they can cause physical pain as well.

Stress and pain are often closely linked. Each one can have an impact on the other, creating a vicious cycle that sets the stage for chronic pain and chronic stress. So, part of getting pain relief is learning how to better manage stress.

For instance, knowing that there is a small chance of getting a painful electric shock can lead to significantly more stress than knowing that you will definitely be shocked, finds a new UCL study funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Great Britain.

The study, published in Nature Communications, found that situations in which subjects had a 50% chance of receiving a shock were the most stressful while 0% and 100% chances were the least stressful. People whose stress levels tracked uncertainty more closely were better at guessing whether or not they would receive a shock, suggesting that stress may inform judgements of risk.

The experiment involved 45 volunteers who played a computer game in which they turned over rocks that might have snakes under them. They had to guess whether or not there would be a snake, and when there was they received a mildly painful electric shock on the hand. Over time they learned which rocks were most likely to harbor snakes, but those odds changed throughout the experiment, generating fluctuating levels of uncertainty.

Participants’ uncertainty that any individual rock would have a snake under it was estimated from their guesses using a sophisticated computational model of learning. This uncertainty matched the stress levels reported by participants, which was also tracked using measurements of pupil dilation and perspiration.

“Using our model we could predict how stressed our subjects would be not just from whether they got shocks but how much uncertainty they had about those shocks,” explains lead author Archy de Berker (UCL Institute of Neurology).

“Our experiment allows us to draw conclusions about the effect of uncertainty on stress. It turns out that it’s much worse not knowing you are going to get a shock than knowing you definitely will or won’t. We saw exactly the same effects in our physiological measures – people sweat more and their pupils get bigger when they are more uncertain.”

“When applying for a job, you’ll probably feel more relaxed if you think it’s a long shot or if you’re confident that it’s in the bag,” says co-author Dr. Robb Rutledge (UCL Institute of Neurology and Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research). “The most stressful scenario is when you really don’t know. It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious. The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it’s waiting for medical results or information on train delays.”

Stress in the modern world is often seen as a negative and counterproductive response, but the study also found a potential benefit. People whose stress responses spiked the most at periods of greatest uncertainty were better at judging whether or not individual rocks would have snakes under them.

“From an evolutionary perspective, our finding that stress responses are tuned to environmental uncertainty suggests that it may have offered some survival benefit,” explains senior author Dr Sven Bestmann (UCL Institute of Neurology). “Appropriate stress responses might be useful for learning about uncertain, dangerous things in the environment. Modern life comes with many potential sources of uncertainty and stress, but it has also introduced ways of addressing them. For example, taxi apps that show where a car is can offer peace of mind by reducing the uncertainty about when it will arrive. Real-time information boards at bus stops and train platforms perform a similar role, although this can be undermined by unspecified delays which cause stress for passengers and staff alike.”

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Authored by: Staff

There are 4 comments for this article
  1. Michael J. at 9:10 am

    I can relate to almost every single article, comments etc. etc. Is ANYONE TRYING TO DO ANYTHING! !!! In regards to contacting ANYBODY, or ORGANIZATION to address the recent CDC GUIDELINES, other than myself? I’m the retired Firefighter / Paramedic from Mi. who just started to share with my fellow brother, sister, C.P. sufferers, my story from beginning to where I am right this very moment. I have contacted various media, governmental and legal firms in hope of getting the national attention that our plight deserces. I am not going to give up this easily and allow the government to tie my doctors, pharmacists hands (Let alone mine,) because of a quick fix mentality that is gonna come back to haunt em,and by that I mean that I forsee an epidemic of suicide, people loosing their ability to work, thus loosing their home.A huge increase in crime and black market pharmaceuticals. Increase burden on our already overburdened Police, Fire,Ems.system and it’s workers. Blah, blah, blah. I could go much further, but this is just plain insane, let alone inhumane. WE HAVE TO COME TOGETHER TO BRING THIS TO THE ATTENTION OF PEOPLE WHO CAN CHANGE THIS. Sorry for falling apart there,but enough of the stories and articles that are basically just ” Preaching to the choir ” I feel that we need and deserve some advocacy from SOMEONE! Until next time. May you all, find the strength and courage to get through your day.

  2. Dooney at 4:30 pm

    Jean , your 100% correct. Right now I’m trying to keep my job for the medical benefits because I read about so many issues with the disability world it’s scary but it’s so stressful trying to get up in pain and drag myself to work. But what is worse, doing that or being on disability and hardly any income and not being able to pay the bills. And even with insurance im on the verge of bankruptcy. Add in some family issues because you don’t feel well a lot and the guilt. And trying to take some care of household responsiblities. I can’t see my stress ever going away unless I win powerball, can quit work, afford the best insurance, hire a housekeeper, and maybe take a vacation once a year.

  3. Jean Price at 10:27 am

    I’m not seeing how being shocked relates stress to those that live withpain! Actually if you use this article as base, we should be less stressed than the general public because we can be pretty assured our pain will happen every day!

    To wonder about stress impacting pain seems a waste of time…because of course it does! Stress impacts the common cold and indigestion and ear aches and broken legs! Now think of trying to live your life being impacted by all these things and what do you get? More stress! So which came first?!! And so….what now? What does it mean to us? We already know to try to keep stress at a minimum, and we mostly know how! Except we keep getting hit with more, don’t we? Now we have the stress of explaining ourselves, getting appropriate care, fighting judgement, and all the other things involved in the CDC’s WITCH HUNT! So, it looks like the stress they cause may be what needs to be solved…they ARE the snake under every rock!

  4. Angel at 5:59 am

    Of course stress is bad. How though do we modify this for pain patients? Say lower your stress breathing exercises antidepressants? The harsh reality is pain has destroyed my life and many others. Can no longer work which caused chaos loss of home self esteem. Instead of the platitudes for those of us that disease has robbed of normalcy we need changes made to support systems for the disabled such as live able disability payments and guaranteed access to necessary medications.