Psychological Stress Can Make Pain Worse

Written by Jim Folk
Written by Jim Folk
Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN
Last updated June 23, 2021
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Apprehensive behavior (anxiety) stresses the body. A body that’s under stress can exhibit symptoms of stress. Experiencing pain due to muscle tension and random body aches and pains is a common symptom of anxiety-caused stress. So much so that 75 to 80 percent of anxious personalities report experiencing pain due to their anxiety issues.

But some anxious personalities experience excruciating pain, and pain far over the top of what even they are used to. Recent research may explain why some anxious personalities experience debilitating pain without there being an obvious physical or medical cause.

A study by Prof. Ruth Defrin of the Department of Physical Therapy at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine published in the journal PAIN finds that acute psychosocial stress can dramatically affect the body’s ability to modulate pain (regulate pain).

The researchers found that there was a significant increase in pain intensification and a decrease in pain inhibition capabilities due to psychological stress, even though pain thresholds and pain tolerance seemed unaffected.

“We found that not only does psychosocial stress reduce the ability to modulate pain, the changes were significantly more robust among subjects with stronger reaction to stress (‘high responders’). The higher the perceived stress, the more dysfunctional the pain modulation capabilities became. In other words, the type of stress and magnitude of its appraisal determine its interaction with the pain system,” said Prof. Defrin.

“We were sure we would see an increased ability to modulate pain, because you hear anecdotes about people who are injured during fighting or sports having greater pain modulation,” said Prof. Defrin. “But we were surprised to find quite the opposite. While there was no visible effect of acute stress on the subject’s pain threshold or tolerance, pain modulation decreased in a very dramatic way.”

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So, if you’ve been under psychological stress, such as behaving anxiously, and have been experiencing intense pain (or more pain than normal), stress-affected pain modulation may be the reason.

Fortunately, this type of pain can be diminished by reducing the body’s stress and giving the body sufficient time to respond. As your body’s stress diminishes, you should see pain relief.

“Modern life exposes individuals to many, recurrent stressful situations,” Prof. Defrin observes. “While there is no way to predict the type of stress we will feel under different circumstances, it is advis able to do everything in our power – adopt relaxation and stress reduction techniques as well as therapy – to reduce the amount of stress in our lives.”

Fibromyalgia is thought to be caused by stress and how the body responds to it. Here again is where stress reduction can be a benefit.

One of the challenges in reducing stress is reducing our psychological stress, which is often caused by worrying about and overreacting to the pain itself, as well as unidentified and unaddressed underlying factors – those behaviors, situations, and circumstances that motivate apprehensive behavior. Containing your worry, underreacting to your pain, and successfully addressing your underlying factors can pay dividends.

The more you work at overall stress reduction, including dealing with the underlying factors that cause issues with anxiety, the faster your body can respond favorably.

If you are having difficulty with stress reduction, containment, underreacting, worry, and identifying and addressing anxiety’s underlying factors, we recommend connecting with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist. An experienced therapist can help you learn these important skills as well as help you identify and successfully address the underlying factors specific to your situation and circumstances.

Our recommended therapists are experienced in helping people overcome anxiety disorder.

If you are experiencing stress-related pain, there is relief. Doing the right work can provide that relief.

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The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources Information, support, and coaching/counseling/therapy for problematic anxiety and its sensations and symptoms, including Psychological Stress Can Make Pain Worse.


1. Geva, N, et al. “Acute Psychosocial Stress Reduces Pain Modulation Capabilities in Healthy Men.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2014,