Stress and lower back pain

“Stress causes muscle contractions – tenseness; it is also implicated in the reduction of blood flow in the tissues, it alters or modifies the breathing mechanisms (the diaphragm, for deep breathing, can be blocked or become stiff) therefore reducing the oxygen flowing through the muscles.”

Silvano Zanuso, Head of Science at Technogym

Although stress is thought of as being in the mind, stress related back pain can be as painful and debilitating as pain caused by muscular or skeletal injuries. Stress related back pain is the result of psychological and emotional factors causing some type of physical change in the body that triggers back pain.

Stress is a sense of being overwhelmed by mental or emotional pressure. Whilst a normal amount of pressure is expected in life and can even be necessary – a complete lack of pressure can result in apathy and not being motivated to do anything; pressure turns into stress when you feel unable to cope. There is no universal measurement of stress. Every individual’s reaction to a situation is different; so what may be extremely stressful to one person may be motivating to someone else.

If stress happens too often or lasts too long, it can affect your health. Stress has both physical and emotional effects on our bodies. It can raise our blood pressure, increase our breathing rate and heart rate, and cause muscle tension. These things are hard on the body. They can lead to fatigue, sleeping problems, and changes in appetite.

When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress. This could be because when we feel stressed emotionally, our bodies release hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. This is the body’s automatic way of preparing to respond to a threat (sometimes called the 'fight or flight' response). In these circumstances, tensing muscle is the body's way of guarding against injury and pain, which may be the result of an impending attack.

When stress occurs suddenly, the muscles tense up all at once, and then release their tension when the stress passes. Being constantly stressed causes the muscles in the body to be in an almost constant state of tension. When muscles are taut for long periods of time, this can activate stress-related disorders such as lower back pain associated with chronic muscle tension in the back muscles.

The mind creates the body’s reality; the body cannot experience anything outside of what the mind communicates to it. This means that the way your mind controls thoughts and attitudes affects how your body reacts and what you feel.

If you are experiencing back pain it can be difficult to determine whether not this is due to stress. However taking action to reduce the amount of stress you experience will have an effect on your total wellbeing. Therefore, it is worth looking at what actions you can take to manage your stress levels.

Suggestions for reducing stress:


Get moving. Physical activity has been shown to relieve stress and improve moods. It doesn’t have to be sports related. Go for a walk and take in nature, spend some time in the park with family and friends, go dancing or join a yoga class. The key is to find a physical activity – no matter how great or small – that you enjoy. This is the vital first step to take.


Hang out with friends. They say that misery hates company, so spend time with loved ones and people that make you laugh and feel good about your place in the world. Reconnecting to your sense of belonging can reduce stress by expanding your outlook on life.


Meditate. Meditation has been proven to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Find time each day (or when you feel tension rising) to sit still and focus on the present moment or practice deep breathing and other meditation exercises.


Remove the source. Maybe it’s time to take some action to remove the source of the stress. For example it could be a relationship that is no longer serving your best interests or a job that puts you under enormous pressure. Whilst this would be the ideal, in reality it may not be practical or possible. The next best thing is to decide to deal with what is causing you stress differently. Learning to anticipate stressful situations in advance and making the conscious decision not to let them get to you. If you are contributing to the stress being caused, then take steps to limit your role in this build up. After all, how you react to any situation is a choice. A helpful technique for doing this is to rehearse how you would react by walking through the situation in your mind. Identify several different choices you can make and that way you don’t have to feel boxed in and stressed because you have options.