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Can stress cause pain?

Fit to Farm: Whether it’s the stress of everyday living or an unexpected stressor there is usually an effect

Wondering if your pain could be related to stress? Try the steps below for seven days.

I cannot count how many times a client has walked in my door telling me that they have aches and pains, and they’re SURE that it’s related to stress elsewhere in their lives. Often they say this in somewhat of a dismissive tone, acknowledging that stress is (sometimes) an unavoidable factor in life and that this somehow diminished the validity of their complaint.

This time of year bodes well for increasing demands on our schedules and bodies; post-harvest and pre-holiday season the stress on our minds and bodies can be high.

Stress can be any number of things. There is the stress we all can think of easily — unpaid bills, demands of family, work, and life. Then there are unexpected stressors like a traumatic event, accidents, or the loss of a job. These things usually affect both our physical and emotional bodies, wreaking havoc on our nervous system and tasking our bodies with the attempt to balance out all that comes along with stress — hormonal changes, biological shifts, and changes in perception.

From a biological perspective we are adapted to exist in a natural environment, with variable diets and constant physical movement, yet in today’s world, even in the agricultural realm, we are often stuck in machinery, run ragged getting everything done and facing other constant environmental and biological stressors.

Our bodies are finely tuned machines. They are able to adapt and balance underlying physiological processes without us even having to think about it. Even when we go through a massively traumatic event, given time and acceptance, our bodies will heal and balance the residual effects of that stressor. Over time though, continuous high levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline cause our body’s balancing system to fatigue, and our nervous system is overwhelmed with the need to continuously be in fight-or-flight mode.

In our society it’s often easier to push through, mask symptoms and avoid the root issue than it is to step back and feel.

In my opinion, escapism is one of today’s biggest medical epidemics.

Almost always, clients who come to me with outbreaks of debilitating low back pain have been experiencing long periods of stress elsewhere in their lives. Shoulder pain? Often comes after periods of doing too much and not listening to signals to slow down. Neck tension and pain? Things being left unsaid, periods of anger, grief and frustration unacknowledged. Interestingly, clients who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia often have a history of a traumatic event within a few years of being diagnosed.

Stress causes pain when we ignore our biological need for rest. Pain, especially pain lasting more than a few weeks, is a blatant signal that something is wrong and our survival is at risk.

Does this mean that if you twist your ankle or blow out your knee that you are repressing emotions and not treating yourself right? No. Pain doesn’t always equal stress repression but stress will cause pain if we don’t acknowledge it.

Pain medications may adjust pain levels, but they do not take stress away. A shift in culture where we go beneath the symptoms and the root cause, no matter how uncomfortable this process can be, is the true necessity.

Wondering if your pain is related to stress? Try this for a minimum of seven days:

  • Three times a day set an alarm on your phone for two to five minutes and with your eyes closed, seated in a comfortable position focus on breathing deeply into your pelvis.
  • If possible go outside for a five- to 10-minute (or more) walk. Consistently breathe and walk each day, for short amounts of time.

Give it a week, note how your body feels each day and if you’re in consistent pain already, note the levels of pain and awareness of the pain (what its qualities are) each day. See how things change over the week, and if you really want to experiment, try this for two weeks or one month.

It’s amazing how much a relatively short time and small things can do to change things if we just create the space and time.

About the author


Kathlyn Hossack runs a clinical practice, Integrative Movement in Winnipeg, Manitoba and consults clients throughout Alberta on a regular basis. For questions or consultations email her at [email protected].

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