How Chronic Stress and Chronic Grief Can Lead to Chronic Pain

Earlier this year I went from doctor to doctor trying to figure out why I was having headaches so often. It wasn't allergies. It wasn't sinuses. It wasn't my vision. After seeing a few family doctors, I made an appointment with an ENT since the headaches were behind my ears. While waiting for that appointment, I had a dentist appointment. They had a new machine that took x-rays all the way around my mouth. 

"You don't have any cartilage in your jaw," the hygienist said, just as an observation. 

I didn't think much of it since he didn't say any more. But when I visited the ENT doctor a couple weeks later and she said my ears, nose, and throat all looked great, I told her more about the location of the headaches, the time of day they usually started, and mentioned what the hygienist said about my jaw. 

"What would lead to you having no cartilage in your jaw? Do you have a lot of stress in your life?" she asked.

Well, I do grind my teeth at night when stressed (I've tried night guards but didn't like any of them). Even worse, I clench my jaw all the time, a physical sign of the almost constant stress I feel as the mom of a son with severe autism. 

That was what was causing my headaches she decided. She gave me prescriptions for pain pills and muscle relaxers, and we talked about ways to give my jaw a break (not drinking from straws, talking less, and applying heat when the pain flared up). 


Since then I've learned to manage it for the most part. A couple weeks ago I had two speaking engagements and a photo session, and by the end of that week, I felt like I couldn't even open my mouth. All that talking and smiling had worn out my jaw! But I had medicine and could even take a day off from most talking (a benefit of being a writer and working from home).

But I can't always manage my stress level.

For autism parents like me, the comparison has been made to the stress level of an active combat soldier.  I'm always aware of where my son James is. He has PICA, so he could put non-food items in his mouth at any time. He is mostly non-verbal, so eloping is a concern. He doesn't always sleep well, so we don't sleep well, often waking up at 2:00 am and being awake for the rest of the day.   

And it's not just chronic stress we deal with as special-needs parents. Some of us experience PTSD (a topic our team member Jolene writes about extensively). And there's chronic grief, sadness that never lifts instead of stress that never lifts (our team member Jonathan ministers to those experiencing chronic grief through Hope Anew). These all cause our bodies to react in different ways, including chronic pain. 


So how do we as special-needs parents keep stress, grief, and pain from taking over our lives and keeping us from caring for our children?

First, we go to the doctor regularly. To be honest, I'm much better at making and keeping doctors appointments for my boys than I am for myself. I don't go until I can't stand the pain any longer. But as I get older, I understand the importance of taking better care of myself. This includes when I'm sick and regular check ups in case there's something I'm missing because I am always operating at such a high level of stress. 

Second, see a counselor. There are been multiple seasons in my life when I've gotten counseling, including a therapist we saw who dealt specifically with grief. Start by asking your pastor or someone you know at church who they recommend. Then keep taking the steps you need to get help.  

Third, find support from people in similar situations. When we lived in Pennsylvania, we had a wonderful community autism support group. The church we attend now has two weekly support groups for caregivers (of children/grandchildren with disabilities and spouses). I've also found support online, in the groups Key offers and in a group I run for special-needs moms who want to focus on self-care.

You don't have to suffer alone! We all deal with stress and sadness. But how we deal with it can keep it from taking over our lives. 

Throughout Scripture we see suffering people turn to God for relief and hope. He gives us the good gifts of doctors, therapists, and support groups. He also gives us the gift of Himself—of faith, hope, and love. He doesn't leave us where we are, even guiding you today to read this post and hopefully take steps toward healing. 

O my Strength, I will sing praises to you,
    for you, O God, are my fortress,
    the God who shows me steadfast love. Psalm 59:17

The chronic pain I experience is a result of the stress I feel, but I'm thankful for ways to manage both. 

Do you experience chronic stress, grief, or pain? What advice do you have for others?