Anxiety can be divided into different aspects: feelings, physical manifestations, thinking, and behaviors.
A number of feelings are associated with anxiety:
- Doubt in one’s abilities
Corresponding to these feelings, people with anxiety also commonly have the following physical manifestations:
- Muscle tension
- Increased perspiration
- Increased heart rate & blood pressure
- Gastrointestinal urgency, followed by an upset stomach
- Increased energy and even shakiness
- Cold hands & feet
Specific ways of thinking also occur when anxious:
- Increased focus on the possible danger and all its consequences
- Thinking about the worst-case scenarios of what might happen (otherwise known as catastrophizing)
When having all these anxious experiences, people tend to behave in specific ways. They are often:
- Avoidant of activities (particularly those activities that bring about the possible danger)
- Stay at home
- Have difficulty completing activities or projects
Sometimes, anxiety becomes persistent. It can then become impairing. It gets in the way of living day to day life. When anxiety is persistent and impairing, it’s considered no longer normal, but rather a disorder.
Anxiety and the nervous system
Anxiety is a state of the autonomic nervous system. When anxious, people are literally nervous. They are nervous in their feelings, their body, their thinking and in their behavior. As such, the nervous system is in a heightened state of alarm. The state of alarm is set off by the possibility of a dangerous thing happening.
Psychologists have dubbed this state of alarm the fight-or-flight response. It prepares people for action, for meeting the challenge of the dangerous thing that might happen. To meet these challenges, the nervous system responds with feelings of being alarmed, with physical changes that increase the capacity for action, with an increased cognitive focus on the possible danger, and avoidance behaviors.
If the danger were actually occurring, this fight-or-flight response of the nervous system would be quite helpful. It would allow for fear-based responses and escape behaviors. In the case of anxiety, the danger isn’t actually happening, but simply might happen. The nervous system prepares by going into fight-or-flight nonetheless. The same responses occur, but the accompanying avoidant behaviors become less goal-directed. In fact, the avoidant behaviors associated with anxiety are in the end quite restless, unproductive and aimless.
The relationship between anxiety and chronic pain
Anxiety is quite possibly the most common condition that accompanies chronic pain. Anxiety tends to go hand in hand with chronic pain. The reason is that pain is a danger signal. The function of pain is to signal danger that something is wrong in the body and requires attention. As such, pain is a warning signal that naturally leads the nervous system to respond with its corresponding alarm – the fight-or-flight response.
The nervous system’s response to pain neatly corresponds to its response to any other danger.
- Feelings of alarm, apprehension and distress
- Increased reactivity of the body, such as increased muscle tension, increased heart rate ad blood pressure, gastrointestinal reactivity, and the like
- Increased cognitive focus on the danger, in this case, pain, and a tendency to worry and catastrophize about it
- Avoidance behaviors, such as guarding, resting, staying home and not engaging in activities that might bring about or increase pain
In acute pain, these responses might be quite helpful. The corresponding fear allows for seeking help and guarding in order to prevent further injury. In chronic pain, they become anxiety and avoidance behaviors.
In the case of chronic pain, the anxiety and avoidance behaviors become chronic themselves. The chronic anxiety leads to a chronic sense of alarm or distress, which makes patients edgy. Cognitively, it leads to a chronic focus on pain, which pre-occupies the attention of the pain sufferer. Everyday decisions seem to turn on how much pain the patient has at any given time. It also leads to chronic muscle tension, which in turn leads to more pain. Chronic avoidance behaviors subsequently lead to an increasing sense of social isolation, inactivity, de-conditioning and, ultimately, disability.
The common denominator between chronic pain and chronic anxiety is the nervous system. The nervous system has become stuck in a persistent state of reactivity. This state of reactivity is associated with a condition called ‘central sensitization.1, 2, 3, 4 Central sensitization is, at least in part, the process by which acute pain becomes chronic pain.5, 6, 7, 8 As such, anxiety tends to go hand in hand with chronic pain.
Treating anxiety in chronic pain rehabilitation programs
Chronic pain rehabilitation programs are the only form of chronic pain management that makes it a point to also focus on treating anxiety. In such programs, patients acquire the abilities to self-manage pain, return to work, and overcome any complications like anxiety.
Chronic pain rehabilitation programs routinely utilize the most effective treatments for anxiety, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressant medications, and mild aerobic exercise.
It is possible to learn to live well despite having chronic pain, and in the process overcome anxiety.
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8. Imbe, H., Iwai-Liao, Y., & Senba, E. (2006). Stress-induced hyperalgesia: Animal models and putative mechanisms. Frontiers in Bioscience, 11, 2179-2192.
Date of publication: March 20, 2015
Date of last modification: March 14, 2021