The unmeetable deadline, the never-satisfied boss, the you-don't-deserve-him mother-in-law: We all know how pressure and aggravation make us feel. Not just in terms of emotional stress (that's a given), but how they tangibly, really feel—the racing heartbeat, the churning gut, the dry mouth. Mental stress has always had its physical component. In fact, that's what the stress response is: the visceral priming of the body to either fight or run away from a perceived danger. Less well recognized is that even chronic, unpleasant stress, the kind that's so constant you consider it normal, can cause aches and pains that you might not attribute to emotions.
"Many people who have stress-related pain aren't even aware of what they're fearful or angry about," says Ian Wickramasekera, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School. By some estimates, half of the patients doctors see for various common body aches are actually expressing psychological distress through physical pain. Stress experts across the country saw evidence of this after the terrorist attacks last September. "In 30 years of specializing in stress-related diseases, I've never seen more flare-ups of physical pain, even in people who'd been free of symptoms for years," Wickramasekera says. (Intrigued Stanford scientists immediately launched a study of the phenomenon.)
The source of stress-related pain lies in the brain, which, when you feel under the gun, triggers the release of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones that prepare the body for action by, for example, increasing heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. Less noticeably, these hormones also make muscles tense up, which can cause aches and irritate nerves.