You wake up every morning with pain, and you go to bed feeling the same way. It is not surprising that this leads to depression and anxiety. In fact, feeling down when you do not feel well is only natural. But did you know that depression can also lead to increased pain? In this case, it becomes a circular scenario where emotional and physical issues feed off one another.
You have probably seen a few people with advanced disease who adopt positive mental outlooks. These people poke fun at their ailments and rarely frown. What is their secret? Are they masking pain and putting on a brave face? Or have they discovered coping mechanisms to help them live their best lives despite illness?
The answers to these questions depend on the person. Some are hiding their pain, and still others have adopted positive outlooks on life and on illness. The latter is not an easy thing to do. In fact, it may be the hardest thing of all. Yet, there is some evidence that a positive outlook or eliminating depression and anxiety can actually improve your physical wellness.
Depression and Anxiety
If you have been depressed, anxious or in pain for a long time, you may know already that pain leads to depression. But what about depression leading to pain? What about anxiety making physical symptoms worse?
Further, depression and anxiety are often discussed interchangeably. In reality, depression and anxiety is not the same thing. In fact, each has different symptoms and impact on us emotionally and physically. And each should be dealt with as two separate issues.
- Appetite changes—eating too much or too little
- Decreased interest in activities
- Feeling down on yourself or guilty or unworthy
- Feeling sad or down
- Lack of concentration
- Low energy
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Sluggish movement
- Suicidal thoughts
- Difficulty concentrating
- Excessive worry about health, events or situations
- Feeling restless
- Feeling tired easily
- Irritability or moodiness
- Muscle tension
- Panic attacks
- Sleep disturbances
Perhaps you feel down, but you also feel anxious with worry. Maybe you are irritable but do not feel depressed.
The overlapping symptoms of depression and anxiety can be hard to pin down, especially when one or both are connected to chronic pain. Additionally, some symptoms run parallel with chronic pain. In other words, are you feeling overly tired because you are anxious or because of pain?
If you’re feeling anxious, nervous, pacing, can’t sit still, therapy may rely on stress reducers, putting stressful issues into perspective or speaking to someone who can help you deal with your problems piecemeal, turning a mountain of problems or issues into achievable tasks.
If you’re feeling depressed, you are likely not pacing. Maybe you are not moving very much at all. Therapies may rely on finding perspective also, but may focus on adopting a better or healthier lens to look at the reasons for your depression.
In either situation, it is important to speak with someone and adopt coping strategies. The later is discussed further toward the end of this article.
Your Body with Depression
Depression can impact your entire body system. This includes contributing to chronic pain. When you are depressed, your blood vessels constrict. This can eventually cause pain and even increases your risk for developing cardiovascular disease and heart attack.
Untreated depression also lowers your body’s ability to fight disease, which exacerbates chronic pain or chronic health conditions like peripheral neuropathy.
According to research, depression can also cause symptoms in the central nervous system, which include brain fog and even an increase in inflammation, which may also increase neuropathy symptoms.
Your Body with Anxiety
Anxiety can feel like your stomach is tied in knots. This is not surprising; the chronic worry associated with anxiety, directly contributes to gastrointestinal health.
Like depression, anxiety can also influence most body systems. The stress of chronic worry, for example, can lead to headaches, fatigue, and even inflammation.
Inflammation is often present in chronic pain conditions, exacerbated when anxiety is also present because emotional stress encourages your body to release the hormone cortisol.
Too much cortisol leads to:
- Weight gain
- Narrowed arteries, which cause pain and increase your risk for heart attack or stroke
- Immune system suppression, which exacerbates chronic disease and pain
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood sugar levels
Chronic Pain Related to Depression and Anxiety
Chronic pain is usually defined as pain lasting longer than three months. Research suggests that up to 50 percent of people with chronic pain also experience depression and anxiety.
By definition, this means that chronic pain must be approached from a physical and a psychological standpoint. Two-fold therapies–emotional and physical–should also consider the differences between depression and anxiety or be able to identify the overlapping symptoms. While therapies for depression and anxiety can be identical, the way you speak to a friend or therapist about depression vs. anxiety and the verbal tools used to gain perspective may be different.
Further, it is important to consider, especially in conditions like neuropathy, which factors are influencing others
In other words, is your pain worse now than it was two months ago, or can increased symptoms be attributed to depression, anxiety or a little of both?
Treating Depression and Anxiety Naturally
Depression and anxiety can be difficult to combat when you have a chronic condition like nerve pain. However, science suggests that getting a handle on anxiety and depression can help ease your physical pain.
Start by identifying your depression or anxiety culprit. In this case, the problem is chronic pain. Then ask yourself what you can do to ease this pain and curb your depression and anxiety.
To begin, try incorporating daily techniques to combat depression and anxiety that also consider your pain. For example, is there a movement or action that releases certain pain-fighting hormones? Can these hormones also reduce depression or anxiety?
Exercise releases endorphins which naturally contribute to a better mood, but adrenaline also comes into play during physical activity. Adrenaline is a natural pain-easer. Two birds with one stone.
If you have chronic pain, exercise might be difficult. However, start slowly and give yourself goals. Reaching a goal can also contribute to emotional wellness.
For example, if you do six arm lifts on Monday, tell yourself by the following Monday, you are going to achieve an even dozen. If you stretched for 10 minutes this week, set your goal to double that by the end of the month.
It is not a race; it is a marathon. Take your time, set small achievable goals that will not leave you frustrated.
Most importantly, give yourself credit when you achieve!
Try these gentle neuropathy-friendly exercises.
2. Eat Pain-Fighting Foods and Natural Mood Boosters
Serotonin is a chemical in the body that contributes to cell health and mood. Ingest it often!
Incorporating serotonin into your body is just another example of a two-fold approach to pain and emotional wellness. In serotonin, you have a natural mood enhancer and a cell-health booster.
Foods that boost serotonin:
- Fish, sardines, mackerel and especially anchovies.
- Coconut oil, walnut oil, flax oil, olive oil
- Broccoli, cauliflower and green leafy vegetables
- Oranges, bananas, pineapples
- Pumpkin Seeds
You should also limit caffeine to two cups per day because this can lower serotonin levels in your body.
3. Adopt Daily Meditation
Studies have shown that meditation not only reduces depression and anxiety, but it can also help control pain.
In fact, one study found that mindfulness meditation reduces body inflammation caused by stress. Additionally, an MRI study found that those who indulged in mindfulness meditation showed increased brain activity during pain stimulation. This indicates enhanced pain-fighting mechanisms at work following mindfulness meditation.
For mindfulness meditation, you will need to find a comfortable place to sit, crossing your legs if possible. Your hips should be elevated above your knees, which may require sitting on a folded blanket or downward-angled cushion. It is important that you are relaxed and comfortable and that the area you choose is free from distractions like a television or phone.
The next step requires even breathing—in through the nose and out through the mouth. Try to pay attention to your breathing as if there is nothing else.
Finally, you will notice your mind begin to wander. You may find yourself thinking about bills, plans or a funny story you read on Facebook. You can get stuck in memories or imagine things you wish you had said during a past argument. When your mind wanders or your thoughts overlap, you may forget that you are meditating. This is normal.
Slowly pull yourself back and focus on your breathing, concentrating only on your breath. Do this for about 15 minutes per day and increase gradually to half an hour.
4. Get Outdoors
Spending time in nature has been scientifically proven to lift spirits and improve physical symptoms.
Serotonin, discussed earlier, is influenced by vitamin D, which is naturally absorbed into your body through direct sunlight. Without vitamin D, you may have a serotonin deficiency, which means the natural happy hormone is gone.
Additionally, when you are outdoors, you are more likely to move or get some exercise as you make your way from point A to point B.
Besides, there is nothing like a beautiful spring or summer day to make you smile.
5. Find Your People
Often when you are living with chronic pain, you have a hard time relating to people. Even if family members are very helpful, it is hard to understand chronic pain and depression unless you have been there.
Reach out to support groups, and make friends with people from these groups who are going through the same thing you are going through. These are your people, and they will understand when you have to beg off an engagement, cancel at the last minute or simply need to vent.
Befriend a few fellow pain sufferers to visit with outside of the group setting as well. Find people to have dinner with at a favorite restaurant, people who do not try to change the subject when it turns to health and wellness.
You may find yourself sitting in a diner with a friend who shares your chronic pain and periodic depression and anxiety. You may notice yourself laughing with this friend and making light of your situation. Maybe you will be like that person at the beginning of this article, the one who surprises and inspires by poking fun at their ailment and rarely frowning.
Rinse, Repeat and Be Good to Yourself
If you do find yourself out with friends who also suffer from chronic pain and you notice yourself laughing, it is probably a direct result of your own tenacity. You have taken proactive measures to contribute to your own health and emotional wellness.
Through mindful meditation, you are more self-aware. You realize that you feel better today than you did yesterday.
Maybe you reached your goal of a dozen stretches per day. Perhaps, you changed your diet and incorporated more serotonin.
Often people will say, I prepared salmon twice, and it did not reduce my pain. I tried mindfulness meditation in early January, and it did not help me.
This is where many people misinterpret the natural approach to healing. Incorporating positive change means adopting modifications long term and incorporating them daily. Generally, you cannot make a change on Monday and expect to feel better by Friday.
You have to continually feed your body and spirit with goodness, which slowly opens the door to emotional and physical wellness. Further, you have to recognize that you deserve it to feel good.
It is not easy, but it is possible.
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