Can Anger Increase Your Pain?

As if anger and sadness weren't tough enough, new studies indicate they may be even tougher on women with chronic pain, particularly fibromyalgia. Researchers recently studied the affect negative emotions have on pain and showed that anger and sadness can actually increase pain for fibromyalgia. Don't let that leave you with a case of the blues, though. Research also shows there are new effective ways to combat those bad feelings.

One hundred and twenty-one women underwent studies in the Netherlands to test how they perceived pain while recalling neutral, angry and sad events. Sixty-two of these women had fibromyalgia and 59 did not. The tests involved use of electrical pain induction.

Before tests were performed, subjects evaluated their current baseline pain (with no electrical pain being applied) on a scale from "no pain" to "intolerable pain." Then, while electrical current was applied, the subjects pressed a button when they first felt the electric current (defined as "sensory threshold"), again when it became painful ("pain threshold") and once again when it became intolerable (pain tolerance).  These studies were repeated while asking subjects to remember neutral, anger-inducing and sadness-inducing events. 

The results showed that both groups of women (those with and without fibromyalgia) demonstrated feeling more pain while thinking angry or sad thoughts. The women with fibromyalgia felt it even more acutely. The studies didn't demonstrate that women with fibromyalgia were more prone to sadness or anger. Instead, it showed they were more sensitive to pain when they felt sad or angry.

Understanding how negative emotions may increase pain was an important factor in another study recently performed in the Netherlands. Researchers studied fibromyalgia patients for their responses to cognitive behavioral therapy (a specific type of psychology-based mind-body therapy) and exercise. They determined that cognitive behavioral therapy and exercise were significantly beneficial for treating patients with fibromyalgia because it gave them skills for dealing with negative emotions. Subjects demonstrated improved short and long-term physical and psychological function after cognitive behavioral therapy and exercise treatment. 

While most fibromyalgia patients won't become study-participants, this research could inspire them to focus more on stress reduction, exercise and mind-body awareness.  Multiple studies support meditation as very helpful for reducing pain, depression and anxiety in fibromyalgia patients. 

If you have fibromyalgia, exercise and therapy might help relieve your pain.

  • Notice when you're feeling sad or upset and note whether your pain level is increasing.
  • Ask your doctor for referrals to therapists who specialize in chronic pain and/or cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Find a meditation coach or check out books from your library on "how to meditate."
  • Make exercise part of every day, even if all you can manage is a short session like a walk or a half-hour of yoga.

Develop tools for relieving negative emotions like talking with friends and family, taking a walk, deep breathing and then notice if your pain starts to diminish.  


Arthritis Care and Research
The Journal of the American College of Rheumatology
Tailored cognitive-behavioral therapy and exercise training for high-risk patients with fibromyalgia.
Volume 62, Issue 10, pages 1377-1385, October 2010
By Saskia van Koulil, Wim van Lankveld, Floris W. Kraaimaat, Toon van Helmond, Annemieke Vedder, Hanneke van Hoorn, Rogier Donders, Alphons J. L. de Jong, Joost F. Haverman, Kurt-Jan Korff, Piet L. C. M. van Riel, Hans A. Cats, Andrea W. M. Evers

Arthritis Care and Research
Volume 62, Issue 10, pages 1370 - 1376, October 2010
The effects of anger and sadness on clinical pain reports and experimentally-induced pain thresholds in women with and without fibromyalgia.
By Henriët van Middendorp, Mark A. Lumley, Johannes W. G. Jacobs, Johannes W. J.