Can stress make my fibromyalgia worse?

Managing stress can help a person with fibromyalgia cope with the symptoms. Here's how.

What is fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a chronic illness that leads to general fatigue and consistently recurring aches and pains. The pain experienced by a person fibromyalgia has no apparent physical cause, and this can make the illness hard to diagnose.

What does fibromyalgia look like?

If you’ve noticed the following signs consistently over a few weeks or months, you may want to consult a doctor to identify if you have fibromyalgia:

  • General fatigue

  • Feeling tired even after a good night’s sleep

  • Headaches and body aches

  • Recurring feelings of sadness or worry

  • Tenderness in the body

  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating on tasks

  • Digestive issues

The exact cause of fibromyalgia is not known. Research suggests that people who’ve experienced intense stress or trauma may develop fibromyalgia, and that genetics may also play a role. 

​Friends and family often find it hard to understand how a seemingly healthy person can unwell or unable to function normally. Scans often don't identify any physical issues, which leads others around them to misunderstand their situation as the person being moody or making a fuss about nothing.

How does fibromyalgia affect a person’s emotional wellbeing?

Fibromyalgia often affects various aspects of a person’s life as they find it tough to carry out routine activities with ease due to the bodyache and fatigue. This can lead to stress and lowered self-esteem–they are unable to keep up with their responsibilities, or have them taken away.

“Fibromyalgia definitely has a psychological basis. A person experiences pain that doesn’t show up on scans as an injury, but the pain can be real, severe and sometimes disabling. Even getting out of bed can be a big task. In nine out of ten cases, fibromyalgia can be hard to identify. Most people consult doctors and get tests done for about a year before they are diagnosed with this illness,” explains Dr Natasha Khullar, neuropsychologist at Medanta, Gurgaon. 

The symptoms of fibromyalgia are often associated with (and sometimes linked to) psychological stressors. This means that stress can make the symptoms worse; and the management of stressors can help in the management of symptoms too. Nine out of ten people with fibromyalgia experience symptoms of depression and at least six out of ten will experience a major depressive disorder during their lifetime.

Fibromyalgia and self-care

There’s no sure shot cure for fibromyalgia, but treatment helps manage the symptoms and alleviate the pain. If you’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, your doctor may prescribe a combination of treatment and lifestyle changes to help with management of the symptoms.

Medical intervention may consist of painkillers along with low dose antidepressants. Therapy can also you cope better with your stress, and therefore manage symptoms.

  • Consult a mental health professional, and consider going to therapy on a regular basis.

  • Consult your doctor about an exercise routine and stick to it. Exercise can help alleviate the body aches. If on a particular day you aren’t able to stick to your exercise routine, move your limbs or take a small walk around the house.

  • Ensure that you’re consuming healthy, balanced meals.

  • Have a good support system - identify family and friends who will be able to support you either practically or emotionally when you need it.

  • Manage your stressors. Your therapist can help you understand what situations cause you stress and create better coping mechanisms.

  • Practise sleep hygiene. Leaving your gadgets out of your bedroom, and having an unwinding routine before bedtime can help you sleep better. 

This piece has been written with inputs from Dr Natasha Khullar Kumar, senior consultant neuropsychologist, Medanta, Delhi.