Help Your Partner Break the Stress-Inflammation-Pain Cycle
Chronic pain is a commonly reported symptom of endometriosis, perhaps the symptom with the most direct impact on quality of life. Stress can make this pain worse. I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean that the pain someone is experiencing isn’t ‘real’ or that it’s ‘all in their head’; Although pain is experienced in the head, it’s the result of a very real process, and stress can make it physiologically worse.
How stress affects our health
When we are exposed to stress, our body’s sympathetic nervous system contributes to the ‘fight or flight’ response. This stress response is our body’s natural reaction to a perceived threat, allowing us to run from danger by boosting hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and suppressing other processes like reproduction or digestion that aren’t immediately crucial to responding to the threat. The stress response also, among other things, releases pro-inflammatory cytokines to fight foreign invaders in the body.
The connection between stress and pain
The problem arises when we are chronically stressed from, say, living with a condition like endometriosis. Digestive and reproductive processes don’t function properly, adrenaline and cortisol production are excessive, and pro-inflammatory cytokines can become ‘upregulated’ – they become habituated in the body and perpetuate themselves. This increased inflammation causes irritation to nerves around the body1, including in the areas of chronic pain. Nerves become more sensitive, and then require less stimuli to cause pain. Everyday activities become more painful and thus more stressful. The cruel cycle continues.
Options for reducing stress
Stress reduction is, therefore, an important part of pain management, and there are a number of ways you can help your partner in this.
For example, you can take on a few more responsibilities around the house, allowing your partner some time to rest and relax. Offer to wash up while your partner watches a film, pick up the kids so they can have a relaxing bath, go the grocery shopping while they have a lay in. Small gestures like that can begin to allow your partner to relax their body and start to break the stress-inflammation-pain cycle.
Exercise is another key way to manage stress so, if your partner’s pain allows it, do some light exercise everyday together. Go for runs or hikes, go to yoga together, even just walk the dog.
Sleep hygiene is the term given to your bed time and waking up routine, and it’s another key stress management tool. Help your partner by going to bed and waking up at a similar time every day, maintaining a regular routine, and getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night.
And finally, having someone to talk to and share your stresses with is a great tool for making them feel more manageable. Listen to your partner’s struggles and concerns around endo, and be there for them when they are finding things difficult. If you are able to shoulder your partner’s burden with them, you can help contribute to them feeling safe and secure. This will help them get out of fight or flight mode, break the body’s inflammatory cycle, and lead to a physical reduction in inflammation and therefore pain. Plus, any challenge feels a lot easier to deal with after a nap and a bath!
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