- We often do not see the connection between chronic pain, health problems, and the presence of anxiety.
- Up to 80 percent of health care visits are linked to stress-related problems.
- Recognize the signs that anxiety is present in your life but is showing up as pain or other health-related problems.
If you were anxious, you'd know it, right? Well, that would be nice, but the truth is that many anxious people aren't sure what they feel. Recognizing and naming emotions is a skill to learn—one that not everyone is good at doing. There are six signs you can use to recognize if you are struggling with anxiety but avoiding the emotion at the same time.
I started getting interested in our ability to mask emotions from my work with chronic pain patients. Many pain sufferers start our pain rehabilitation program with the standard questions: “What in the world is going on with me? Why do I have chronic pain?” While we do have a good general explanation of chronic pain based on neuroscience, how and why each person develops chronic pain is a unique story, one that takes some work to uncover.
One common struggle that I have noticed among some pain patients is difficulty recognizing and naming emotions, something that is called alexithymia (Greek for “no word for emotion”). In general, when people do not feel well emotionally, they can recognize their discomfort and describe what they feel. But for some people, identifying specific emotions is difficult. They either report feeling numb or can only say, “I just don’t feel well,” but cannot describe anything more.
We know that 60 to 80 percent of health care visits are linked to stress-related problems. Even in a medical setting, people are not coming in to see their doctor saying, “You know my marriage has been quite unsatisfying for the past five years, which is about the time my headaches and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) started. Maybe you could help me look at my marriage issues and provide me with some tools for handling that better.” Rather, what people say is, “What can you give me for my chronic headache and upset stomach?”
It is not that we do not want to talk about our life stress—most people, including many health care providers, do not know there is a strong connection between stress, anxiety, and health problems.
6 Signs That Anxiety is Bothering You
Anxiety shows up when we do not have the kind of control in life we would like. For example, anxiety naturally occurs when you are driving down a snow-covered road and realize that your car is starting to slide; as the car slides, you do not have the control you would like.
We can experience this emotion that comes from the loss of control in any number of situations, including work, relationships, and as a result of the current pandemic. We can also experience anxiety when picturing future events where we might not have control, like giving a speech a week from now. You can be anxious and still look calm, behave normally, and accomplish important things. Anxiety is not about looking or acting like a nervous person.
Here are six signs that you are anxious but do not recognize that anxiety is related to your chronic pain or other health problems you are experiencing.
1. It is hard for you to name emotions.
If you cruise through your day without thinking too much about what you feel, have trouble explaining to others what you feel, rarely ask others what they feel, and are not sure what leads to feeling good or bad, you might be struggling with alexithymia.
2. Your chronic pain or other health problems started during a time of stress or transition.
If you look back at when your neck started to hurt, your lower back when out, or your overwhelming fatigue set in, you might find that your life was in a major transition or stressful period. Maybe your first child started school, your youngest child left home, your husband retired, a parent died, you were promoted at work, graduated from college, or started a new job. Transitions and stress are significantly challenging because of our lack of control in these situations, which leads to anxiety.
3. You do not share your emotional ups and downs with others.
People who openly share their life with others talk about emotions. People who connect with others mainly through activities like work, sports, or discussions about politics may not be getting below the surface to talk about what they feel or want.
4. You do not know what you need.
When our basic needs for connection with others, competence, and autonomy are not met, we are going to experience negative emotions. If you are not aware of your needs, you may not be aware of what you feel when your needs are not met.
5. Your coping strategies are not healthy.
Even though you tell yourself you are doing well, you are drinking more alcohol, picking up your old smoking habit again, spending more time and money using cannabis products to manage your sleep problems, watching more TV, and reacting with anger at small irritations or nothing at all.
6. You have unexplained pain problems.
If you have life challenges and unmet needs but no clearly defined emotions, chronic pain could be what you do feel in the end. The stress you feel at work, the unhappiness you feel at home, and the pressures of life generate emotions, emotions that help us know that something is wrong and needs attention. Think of physical pain as an alternative way of your brain getting your attention that something is wrong if your emotional warning system is turned off.
To help patients identify emotions, I describe the most common emotions and explain why they are useful. I also discuss how emotions are related to our basic emotional needs. I then spend a bit of extra time specifically talking about anxiety, as that emotion seems more difficult than others for us to live with and manage.
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