The holidays can be both a time of joy and celebration, but also of stress and depression. Mental health suffers even more if you are 1 in 5 Americans who have chronic back, neck, shoulder or other joint pain.
Doctors define this chronic “neuromusculoskeletal” pain as the type that lasts for three months or longer. Such chronic pain, unfortunately, is often a double-edged sword. Not only does it detract from our daily activities, which can cause feelings of anxiety and depression, but it causes mental health and pain to worsen without effective therapies to address them.
Coping behaviors to manage pain and stress – drinking too much alcohol, eating junk food and excessive isolation with media/technology – also tend to make both conditions worse. Meanwhile, a pharmaceutical approach to managing pain poses additional risks. Opioid-based painkillers – such as oxycodone and hydrocodone – are largely ineffective for long-term management of chronic, noncancer pain and open the door to the dangers of overdose and addiction.
Since chronic pain and mental health are so closely related, working to improve one problem tends to benefit the other and vice versa. The bottom line: If you want physical and mental health improvements faster, tackle both at the same time – even during the holidays.
The Science Behind the Mind-Body Connection
It may seem obvious that our mental health suffers when we are in pain, but scientific evidence of this phenomenon is still relatively new. A Harris Poll of 2,000 U.S. adults found that nearly half have experienced physical pain that they believe was worsened due to mental or emotional pain.
Another frequently cited study followed 500 primary care patients with chronic back, hip or knee pain for 12 months, half with reported depression and half without. After checking in with patients periodically, researchers found pain worsened after their depression worsened and depression increased after episodes of poorly managed pain, even in those patients who did not have depression before.
Certainly, in some cases, somebody with chronic pain may never become depressed while someone with depression may never develop chronic pain. The two conditions are so common simultaneously that scientists have researched what may be going on in our bodies that are contributing to the relationship.
The link, scientists are uncovering, is our nervous system. Our nervous system continually adapts to our changing environment, which is part of the reason why a new job, living in a different city or starting a romantic relationship may make us stressed and excited in the beginning, but eventually become routine and do not elicit the same feelings as before. Scientists call this process “neuroplasticity.”
Neuroplasticity, however, can turn against us by making it easier to feel symptoms of pain and depression if we do not find ways to manage them.
Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, however, can help us reverse this process. According to Dr. Heidi Haavik, author of The Reality Check: A Quest to Understand What Happens in the Brain as It Relates to the Spine, there are simple ways to train the brain out of pain through movement, gut health, mindfulness and meditation, healthy sleep habits and spinal movement. These activities have helped millions of people manage chronic pain.
Five Tips from the Happiness Expert
The foremost expert in the scientific basis of happiness and the mind-body connection is Laurie Santos, PhD, professor of psychology, head of Silliman Residential College at Yale University and host of “The Happiness Lab” podcast. Dr. Santos’ class “The Science of Well-Being” became the most popular course at Yale and was eventually offered to the public online where it has been viewed by millions.
Here are five science-based well-being improvement behaviors Dr. Santos shares during the course and discusses on her podcast.
- Social connection. All the family gatherings and parties around the holidays may seem overwhelming, but they can be good for our mental health. Studies show that happy people tend to be around other people more often than people who spend more time alone, according to Dr. Santos. Obviously, these social connections would include the family and friends we see and talk with often, but Dr. Santos also recommends to her students to reconnect with people who they have not spoken with in a while or to talk with someone new. Even just a brief encounter or sharing a nice conversation with a stranger help us feel more positive.
- Helping others. Often the topic of “self-care” comes up when discussing well-being. What Dr. Santos has found to be more beneficial, however, is that helping others in ways such as volunteering time or donating to charity yields greater happiness than time spent doing something for ourselves. Dr. Santos prescribes to students that they perform random acts of kindness for someone else, such as buying a stranger’s coffee or meal, which are associated with surprisingly higher levels of happiness than a massage or special dessert for ourselves.
- Gratitude. When we are overwhelmed by busy schedules and stress, we can forget about the things in our life that fulfill us and make us happy. Writing down each day things we are grateful for and why can generate happiness. We can express gratitude for big things in our life, like our family; or small things, such as tomatoes grown in our garden, but simply taking a moment each day to record these positive things creates the opportunity for more happiness.
- Exercise and sleep. One study Dr. Santos often cites is a study from Duke University Medical Center where researchers found that 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week was just as effective as drug therapy in relieving the symptoms of major depression in the short term. In a follow-up study a year later, researchers found only 8% of patients in the exercise group had their depression return, while 38% of the drug-only group and 31% of the exercise-plus-drug group relapsed.
Combined with exercise, quality sleep is essential for better mental health and pain management. Dr. Santos urges students to sleep for the recommended hours – 7 to 8 – but also practice good sleep hygiene, such as putting screens away well before bed and sticking to a schedule where they go to bed and wake up at the same times.
- Mindfulness. Being in the moment and thinking about what we are doing right now makes us happy. Conversely, letting our minds wander to concerns other than the people and activities in front of us decreases happiness. The best way to practice mindfulness, Dr. Santos recommends, is through meditation. If you’ve never meditated before, start by spending just five minutes a day sitting and focusing on every breath. If your mind wanders, try to bring it back to the moment. Eventually, it will become easier to stay in the moment and shift your thoughts back to your breathing. That is neuroplasticity at work — your brain is rewiring itself so your default mode is to be mindful and present instead of distracted and anxious by other things.
Don’t Go It Alone
It is possible to overcome chronic pain and mental health challenges on your own. Holistic healthcare professionals for both the mind and the body, however, can save you a lot of time and discomfort through safe, natural, drug-free care that addresses more than just symptoms, but rather the root causes of the problems. By confronting mental and physical health problems at the same time, you can experience relief in both areas while learning valuable skills and knowledge to stay on the road to better health and well-being.
About the author:
Sherry McAllister, DC, is president of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress (F4CP). A not-for-profit organization with nearly 32,000 members, the F4CP informs and educates the general public about the value of chiropractic care delivered by doctors of chiropractic (DC) and its role in drug-free pain management. Learn more or find a DC at www.f4cp.org/findadoc.