The Link Between Fibromyalgia and Stress

Fibromyalgia is a highly unpleasant condition characterized by constant pain, lethargy and low mood. It can have a devastating impact on the quality of life of a patient and unfortunately there is currently no known cure.

That said however, there are a number of different treatments that can make living with fibromyalgia easier and new research is constantly shedding more light on the condition to help unveil more new management techniques.

Much of this research also seems to be focusing on the link between fibromyalgia and stress. In this article we will look at how the two are linked and at how using stress relief activities and other strategies can help those suffering from fibromyalgia and similar conditions.

Psychosomatic Conditions and Fibromyalgia

A psychosomatic condition is anything that is caused, worsened or complicated by the brain. A common mistake here is to interpret this as meaning that the condition is ‘all in the mind’ which is not the case at all.

Rather, psychosomatic conditions are simply those that are maybe somewhat to do with brain activity and which perhaps are worsened by the release of certain neurotransmitters or unhealthy thinking patterns even.

Even ‘pain’ in general can be considered to be psychosomatic. The reason for this is that pain originates in the brain, not at the point of contact. It has been demonstrated on countless occasions that it is possible to distract yourself from pain and that it requires attention in order to be subjectively experienced.

Likewise, depression can cause someone to feel more pain or to even become more likely to develop illnesses. A ‘nocebo’ is the opposite of a placebo – where a patient believes they’ve been poisoned or infected and this results in the manifestation of physical symptoms.

Fibromyalgia and Stress

This brings us on to the role of stress in fibromyalgia and how it can at least worsen the symptoms.

Here, being very stressed means that you are more likely to focus on pain and as we’ve already discussed, this is what makes us feel pain in the first place. The more stressed you are, the more likely you are to pay attention to your pain and the worse it will seem.

But moreover, stress hormones and neurochemicals are designed to heighten our senses. The reason for this is that the stress response is actually designed (from an evolutionary standpoint) to help us to escape from danger. Thus it would serve us well to be more cued in to what’s going on around us and better able to react quickly to things we see and hear.

Thus, the release of norepinephrine, glutamate, dopamine and cortisol all cause our senses to be experienced in greater volume – including our sense of pain. On the other hand, stress suppresses the release of other neurotransmitters such as serotonin which are known to act as natural painkillers. Without these, our sensitivity to pain only grows.

When something goes wrong with our neurochemistry, this can lead to the experience of incredible sensitivity and thus the feeling of pain distributed throughout the entire body. This could make fibromyalgia a ‘central sensitization’ condition, greatly moderated by the individual’s experience of stress.

Brain Inflammation and Fibromyalgia

So fibromyalgia and stress are closely related but even if one does not cause the other, it may be that changes in the brain result in the two correlating. It has been suggested for instance that fibromyalgia might be the result of an insensitivity to serotonin, or a deficiency of serotonin. In either case, the symptoms would be both stress and pain throughout the body – both of which do occur in fibromyalgia.

It has also been suggested that fibromyalgia could be caused or exacerbated by inflammation in the brain due to pro-inflammatory cytokines. This could again result in both heightened stress and heightened sensitivity to pain.

Treatments

For all these reasons, it is generally accepted that there is a strong link between fibromyalgia and stress and many treatments and management techniques revolve around the reduction of stress.

Thus medication for stress is often prescribed in order to help reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia, as are psychotherapeutic techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy. The latter is a much safer technique which in the long term is more likely to have lasting benefits.

Understanding this connection though is also simply useful for sufferers to be able to better understand something that might be making their condition worse. If you find yourself struggling with fibromyalgia, then make sure that you do everything you can to avoid exposing yourself to unnecessary stress. Learn as many stress management techniques as you can and try to remember to stay calm for the sake of your health.

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