World Brain Day: How mental stress manifests in different body parts

The mind and body are closely interconnected. The occurrence of mental stress can have various physiological effects on the body, leading to physical discomfort. This phenomenon is often referred to as the mind-body connection. When you experience mental stress, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can impact different systems within the body, leading to various physical manifestations.

From thought to pain, stress has real manifestations in the form of physical pain. To unravel the invisible impact of mental stress on our bodies, Midday Online spoke to Mrs Rucha Shrikhande Divekar, consultant psychologist at Ruby Hall Clinic, Pune.

Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:

How does mental stress affect the body and contribute to the experience of physical pain in various areas?
According to human science, mental health and physical health are two sides of the same coin. “In our OPD, we come across patients who are diagnosed with anxiety disorder (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) which is largely a part of illness anxiety” shares Divekar. There is a strong association between the central nervous system and the brain.

Many times, patients are brought to the emergency ward suffering from hypochondriasis. The symptoms of this include an intense fear of having a serious health problem. However, upon diagnosis, all the physiological as well as pathological parameters turn out to be normal. This condition is referred to as an illness induced by the fear of the mind.

The diagnostics manual by American Psychological Association mentions mental illnesses which mimic physical ailments like factitious disorder, Munchausen Syndrome etc.

Can you explain the physiological mechanisms behind the connection between mental stress and physical pain?
Physical attributes of the body and the brain have many signs and symptoms like chest pain, a strong feeling in the gut, eating disorders, constipation or loose motions, palpitations either rising high or tachycardia and other diverse physiological factors. The muscles in the CNS (Central nervous system) get active and hyper with the stress and so do the other neuro-transmitters and regulators.

Excess stress in the blood and body can get an individual diagnosed with high sugar levels hypertension and blood pressure issues. Many times, physical or physiological mechanisms are assumed to be greater to the individual than that of his mental and emotional condition. Psychosomatic disorders are more likely to have a mental condition due to physical disorders or ailments and vice versa.

Are certain individuals more prone to experiencing physical pain due to mental stress, and if so, what are the factors that make them more susceptible?People who tend to overthink are at the highest risk of inflicting themselves with physical pain arising from mental stress. A by-product of anxiety is overthinking and over-worrying about issues which are beyond our control. When we undergo mental stress, the physical pain aggregates more than usual. This is observed more in the case of females.

Are there specific types of physical pain that are more commonly associated with mental stress? For example, headaches, muscle tension, gastrointestinal discomfort, etc.
Yes, there are specific types of physical pain or discomfort associated with stress. They include headaches, body aches, gastrointestinal discomfort, polyuria, chest pain, hypertension high or low palpitations and elation at times eating disorders or periods of binge eating depression.

How can someone differentiate between physical pain caused by a specific injury or condition and physical pain that stems from mental stress?
The easiest way to differentiate between physical pain caused by a specific injury or condition and physical pain that stems out of mental stress can be determined by its functionality and the kind of distress it is causing in the daily chores of everyday life.

Due to a lack of awareness about one`s lifestyle and mind, sometimes it becomes unavoidable to sit back and reflect upon a patient’s condition when they begin to feel anxious about their health. By default, the next step is to take them to the hospital. Hence understanding one`s mind and body is important to identify the triggers of stress which leads to the physical pain associated with it.

Are there any common patterns in terms of which body parts are affected by stress-related physical pain?
There is a common pattern which is very unique to each individual which determines how stress affects them via physical pain. For instance, People who have chronic IBS or constipation will always find an interconnection with stress and its effects on gastrointestinal health. Malingering of illnesses is also common these days which means that there is no existing pain but due to the mental stress it leads to dysfunction in the overall system.

Can stress-induced physical pain worsen existing medical conditions or lead to new health issues?
That could happen in certain cases. We need to understand that due to a lot of stigma and taboos on mental and emotional health, we are very ignorant of the side effects of stress. To lead a good lifestyle, it is advised to be mindful of one’s body and mind. If we fail to do that, then our mechanism becomes a magnet to diverse somatic disorders and deadly diseases like cancer or tumours. Stress is something which everyone has to go through, the crux is to manage and control stress.

Are there any preventative measures or coping strategies that individuals can adopt to reduce the impact of mental stress on their physical well-being?
Yes. There are many such therapies and holistic ways to cope better to reduce stress levels on their physical well-being. Clinical counselling and psychotherapy work better for understanding one’s self-awareness of the body and mind.

Are there specific relaxation techniques or therapies that can effectively alleviate stress-induced physical pain?
Yes, therapies such as psychotherapy cognitive behaviour therapy, rational emotive behaviour therapy, stress management, anger management, counselling yoga, pranayama dance meditation and similar relaxation techniques can effectively alleviate stress-induced physical pain. To make the most of it, the individual needs to be aware of what his inclinations are and what would be the best thing for him to work to reduce stress levels in his body.

According to me, meditation is not applicable to all, especially to patients who are diagnosed or are on treatment for anxiety and depression. Such patients need to look for activities which enable them to meditate through art, music or any skill developed with discipline.

Also Read: Brain Day Special: The critical role of early detection in neurological disorder