There’s a Surprising Link Between Anxiety and Pain

By
Image
Photo: Denis Kartavenko/Getty Images(c) Denis Kartavenko

Some people who suffer from chronic pain find relief from a somewhat surprising method of treatment: anti-anxiety medications, said neuroscientist David Linden, the author of the new book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind, in an interview on “Fresh Air” yesterday. Linden explained the “horrible positive feedback loop” this way: 

So it turns out that the emotional pain centers are richly interconnected with regions of our brain having to do with cognition and anxiety and anticipation. So this is why many people who suffer from chronic pain can get partial relief from anti-anxiety medication. It’s not that the anti-anxiety medication directly affects pain-perception – what it does is it breaks this horrible positive feedback loop between anxiety and chronic pain. So if you have chronic pain, then you become anxious about, “When is it going to stop? When is it going to recur?” And that anxiety seems to trigger more chronic pain. 

If you reduce someone’s anxiety about their pain and when it could next occur, you can also reduce at least some of the pain itself, Linden is suggesting. Anticipation is a pretty powerful thing.