There are a few ways emotional stress might increase our physical pain levels.
First, it can cause a head tilt. Most of us know that the right side of the brain tends to be more active than the left when we are doing creative things, such as painting a picture, making music, or dreaming up a new story to write. The left side of the brain tends to be more active than the right when we are working on math homework, thinking through our grocery list, or playing sudoku puzzles. Both sides of the brain are really important, not just for helping us do those tasks, but for keeping the other side in check.
Without the left side of the brain, the right side can spin off and imagine the worst case scenario in all things. Some mental health professionals would call that “anxiety”. On the other hand, without the right side of the brain, we would have low levels of “happy hormones” like oxytocin and progesterone.
When we are using one side of the brain, it tends to go upward. If we are “stuck” in emotionally stressful situations or thought processes, the right side of the brain goes upward, which means we have a left head tilt. The head will literally tilt to the left. In today’s stress-riddled world, it is unusual for someone to have a right head tilt, unless they have had a head trauma (like a concussion) in the past.
If we have a head tilt, it will put stress and strain on one side of the neck, eventually pulling one shoulder up higher, and causing compensation from the rest of the spine all the way down. There are some neurodevelopmental specialists who have suggested that childhood idiopathic scoliosis may be due to early-onset C1 subluxations.
**Note: Not all head tilts are due to emotional stress – subluxations in the upper cervical spine are commonly caused during the birth process, which can create a mechanical head tilt. Regardless of how a subluxation starts, it can lead to bigger problems down the road if left untreated.
Secondly, when we are in emotional pain, fear, or stress, we tend to adopt a forward flexed posture. What do we do when we are hurt and crying? We curl up into a ball, also known as a fetal position. On the other hand, what do we do when we laugh really hard? We throw our head back.
When we are constantly in a state of emotional stress, fear, or pain, we tend to curl up into a question mark shape, which puts a lot of abnormal mechanical strain on the spine.
Finally, emotional stress releases cortisol, sometimes called adrenaline. Elevated cortisol levels make our nerves more sensitive to pain sensations, including sharp pain, aching pain, burning pain, and numbness/tingling neuropathies.
Stress is part of life these days. We can’t do anything about reducing your emotional stress at home or at work, but we can help reduce the effects of stress on your physical body.