exercise therapy, informative

Is anxiety causing your pain?

It’s not uncommon to find that your neck and shoulders feel ‘tense’ when you have a looming deadline at work. Or to notice a a sore lower back as you reach down to pick up a hefty pile of bills from your door mat.

Most of the time we are able to rationalise the link between our short term stress and the short-lived ‘muscular tension’ that goes with it. And that’s all very well if we are exposed to a stressor for only a short period of time. We just don’t need to dwell on the pain when it is so brief. However, when we experience stress for extended periods of time it is harder to ignore.

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe

Have you ever had a niggling pain that you just can’t shift? After a day or two you start to worry that you might have a serious injury? After a couple of weeks, you’re starting to think that it will never heal… You’ve been to the doctor and have a referral for a scan. Now it must be serious. What if they find something really bad? What if they don’t find anything? That means you’ll be in pain forever…

You aren’t the first to experience this line of thought. And you certainly won’t be the last. Anxiety about pain is very common, and many of the folks that visit the Move Well Clinic report that they feel anxious about the true cause of their pain. Often they want to know that they haven’t damaged their body – causing irreparable harm. But often the anxiety itself is the main driver for the pain experience.

Anxiety is “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe” (1). If you’re in pain you might find that your anxiety eases once you have started to focus on solutions to your pain. For example: if you have a tooth ache, you often feel heaps better once you have booked your dentist appointment. But what if it lasts longer?

Paul Ingraham wrote a fantastic (and lengthy!) blog post in January 2019 called ‘Anxiety & Chronic Pain’. It’s certainly worth a read if you think there may be a pattern between your own persistant pain issues and anxiety – especially if you are hoping to address both issues!

Depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days

Another mental health issue linked pain and anxiety is depression. If you have been feeling down for a number of weeks or months then this is potentially a bout a depression. According to the NHS “Depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days” (2). Depression has been identified as a risk factor for developing persistant, non-specific neck pain (3). It has also been consistently linked with other conditions, including abdominal pain (i.e.: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)) (4) and lower back pain (5).

According to Harvard University, pain has been shown to share some biological mechanisms with anxiety and depression (6). This means that although it can be difficult to treat both pain and mental health conditions, it is likely that we can improve more than one of these health issues targeting only one of them. Some of the suggested methods of treatment are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy , Relaxation techniques (i.e.: mindfulness meditation(7,8)) and exercise (9). But of course, taking up more than one of these approaches is the most effective way to address all these issues. This would be the best way to ensure they are all managed effectively.

A great place to start is with reflecting on your stress levels and taking care of your mental health… And then get moving!

So, if you want to wave goodbye to your old friends pain and anxiety and/or depression rest reassured that there is more than one way to do this. A great place to start is with reflecting on your stress levels and taking care of your mental health… And then get moving! 🙂


Take the ‘Depression Self-assessment’

If you’re not sure whether you are depressed, you can take a short ‘Depression Self-assessment’ on the NHS website. CLICK HERE to go to the page – scroll halfway down the page to find the assessment!


Reference List:

  1. NHS website (2017) ‘Anxiety’. Location: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/ [Accessed on 21st April 2019].
  2. NHS website (2016). ‘Depression’. Location: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/clinical-depression/ [Accessed on 21st April 2019].
  3. Shahidi, B., Curran-Everett, D. and Maluf, K.S. (2015). Psychosocial, Physical, and Neurophysiological Risk Factors for Chronic Neck Pain: A Prospective Inception Cohort Study. Journal of Pain, 16(12):1288-99.
  4. ADAA website. ‘Understand the Facts: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)’. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs %5BAccessed on 21st April 2019].
  5. Harvard Health Website ‘The pain-anxiety-depression connection.’ https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-pain-anxiety-depression-connection  [Accessed on 21st April 2019].
  6. Lépine, J.P. and Briley, M. (2004). The epidemiology of pain in depression. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental19(S1):S3-S7.
  7. Long, J., Briggs, M. and Astin, F. (2017). Overview of Systematic Reviews of Mindfulness Meditation-based Interventions for People With Long-term Conditions. Advances in mind-body medicine31(4):26-36.
  8. Anheyer, D., Haller, H., Barth, J., Lauche, R., Dobos, G. and Cramer, H. (2017). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for treating low back pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of internal medicine166(11):799-807.
  9. Geneen, L.J., Moore, R.A., Clarke, C., Martin, D., Colvin, L.A. and Smith, B.H. (2017). Physical activity and exercise for chronic pain in adults: an overview of Cochrane Reviews. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (4).


If reading this article has flagged up questions, please feel welcome to post them in the comments below. Alternatively, if you would like to arrange an appointment or make an enquiry regarding the Move Well Clinic in Stourbridge, UK please use the following links:


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