Can Stress Cause Pain? - Effects of Stress on the Body

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

The human body and its reaction to stress is highly variable. The lesson goes over the definition of stress and the possible responses it can create in the body.

Can Stress Cause Pain?

For the past couple of days a pain had been growing between Ali's shoulder blades. Usually it was a dull discomfort, but sometimes he moved into just the wrong position, and the pain was so sharp it caused his eyes to water. He didn't have time to deal with this at the moment though - he was in the middle of his final exams for his first year of college and under a lot of stress, or mental, physical, or emotional disharmony and strain. He would have to wait another week before he had the time and energy to spare to solve this mystery.

What could be going wrong with Ali's body that he has both high levels of stress and intense pain? Are they related, or is this merely a coincidence? Let's take a closer look at what stress is and if it's possible for the body to react to stress in a way that causes pain.

What Is Stress?

We should be clear about what we are referring to when we say stress, because there are a number of ways to define it. The definition we will be using for this lesson is the one created by health researcher Hans Selye in 1936, who said stress is 'the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.' There are two things this definition makes clear:

  1. Stress is a response
  2. The specific response is ambiguous

So, in this context, stress is an ambiguous response to any change the person may be experiencing. Getting back to our college student, Ali, could the change in his environment (final exams) be causing bodily pain? It's not yet clear if this could be the case, but if the stress was causing the pain it would still fit our definition. Let's investigate further how the body responds to stress.

Types of Stress

Much research has shown that the body responds to stress in many different ways and, in fact, not all stresses are bad. Elite athletes, for example, rely on the stresses created by carefully tailored workouts to improve their body functions in order to go faster, run farther, or throw more accurately. The workout is a change in the environment, and the body hopefully responds to the workout by building more muscle mass, making the cardiovascular system more efficient, or improving aim.

Although this isn't what most people mean by 'stress,' it definitely fits our definition. This type of stress can be labeled good stress or healthy stress. Although this type of physical stress can also result in sore muscles, this is clearly not what Ali has been experiencing.

The same type of thing can happen with emotional stress. Have you ever heard of someone who works better under pressure? This is an example of the emotional pressure of a time limit improving someone's performance significantly.

However, physical or emotional stress can get high enough that the body responds in a way where performance is no longer being improved. In the case of the elite athlete, an example might be training too hard, too often, or not allowing enough time to rest between workouts. The body is still subjected to a change, but the resulting response of the body is no longer desirable. This is an example of unhealthy stress or distress. This can also happen with too much emotional stress.

The Body's Responds to Stress

Research has shown that people react in a number of ways to unhealthy levels of stress. These can involve changes in behaviors, moods, the body, or even combinations of these three. Some common responses are:

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