Fibromyalgia is Linked to Childhood Stress and Unprocessed Negative Emotions

Starting the day with fibromyalgia pain made Vera angry

Fibromyalgia made it hard for 46 year old Vera to get her legs out of bed in the morning. As she moved toward the bathroom and began her toilette, the pangs of pain moved to her hands, head and neck. It brought tears to her eyes. It made her angry to think that Kurt hadn’t even thought of organizing things around the house to make life a little easier for her. Vera remembered the arguments about accompanying her on doctor appointments and got even angrier. But she never said anything to him. She turned her mind to the support group she would attend later that day, although it wasn’t successful in easing her physical discomfort.

Vera found it easier to focus on the fibromyalgia pain than her scary emotions

As she ate breakfast, flashbacks of her early family file flooded Vera’s vision. She relived the tension she used to feel coming home from school wondering if her parents would fight out loud or give each other the cold shoulder. Her mother would take out her frustration on Vera the oldest and quietest of her kids. Her muscles tightened up as she recalled the fear of uncertainty and not knowing how to speak about her worries. It was the same thing now. She didn’t know how to talk about the anxiety of not being able to take care of herself. Vera had no words for the anger at her father for not making her mother happy, and at Kurt for being equally insensitive and uncaring. What she did have was body pain that ranged from dull aches to excruciating pain for which no specific organic cause had been found. Fibromyalgia was the diagnosis. It came with fatigue, slowing down of actions and restricting her life. It was making Vera dependent on pain medication and on a husband who let her down, repeating the cycle of her childhood.

Stuffing her anger made Vera’s fibromyalgia more acute and distressing

Vera’s struggles in talking about her anger and stress as a child and now as an adult make it more likely that her experience of pain when the fibromyalgia flares up will be more intense and debilitating. The European Journal of Pain, 2010 reported a study comparing female fibromyalgic sufferers who expressed versus those that repressed their anger. The greater the inhibition of anger the greater the experience of pain in women with fibromyalgia. Those who got angry and expressed it in the situation in which it was aroused experienced the least amount of pain.

No amount of positive thinking eased her excruciating fibromyalgic pain

When compared to healthy women, those who avoid strong negative emotions like anger and let it fester unprocessed are more likely to suffer fibromyalgia. In addition focusing on positive emotions does not appear to be a sufficient buffer. According to a report in the 2008 Journal of Psychosomatic Research, it is the lack of processing of negative emotions that precipitates the cycle of pain in fibromyalgic sufferers irrespective of the amount or duration of positive thoughts. Vera wasn’t more sensitive than most women to negative emotions like anger, but she experienced them more often and never learned to express them in a healthy way. It compromised her neuroendocrine functioning, lowering her pain threshold both physically and psychologically, suggests a study on women with fibromyalgia published in Arthritis Care and Research, 2010.

Fibromyalgia is linked to chronic childhood stress and conflict with parents

Vera was typical of most adult women with fibromyalgia that have had stressful childhoods as reported by the Journal Stress and Health in 2009. Vera’s experience of verbal and emotional abuse from her mother, and the uncaring attitude of her father is another common thread in the life histories of women with fibromyalgia. Vera’s struggles with her mother and now her husband made her view life through a more negative lens. Conflict with parents and later with partners adds to the stress and contributes to the more negative perceptions of life by women with fibromyalgia as indicated by the journal European Psychiatry in 2000.

Chronic childhood stress deregulates Vera’s neuroendocrine system making her more prone to fibromyalgia

Long term stress that is continuous and chronic affects the neuroendocrine system making it less effective over time. Vera’s childhood trauma created a permanent sense of uncertainty and unpredictability that impaired her ability to develop and use healthy stress management strategies. So with each new stress her neuroendocrine system got weaker and began functioning in an abnormal way. She lived in a constant state of stress such that her levels of stress hormone such as cortisol were elevated years after the stress of living with her parents was removed. Despite the struggle of living with a man who was argumentative and unsupportive, it was nothing compared to her previous stressful experiences. The early chronic experience of stress appears to exert a much larger influecne in contributing to the pain of fibromyalgia than any current stressful life event, as a 2006 study reported in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinolgy.

Processing negative emotions can reduce the pain of Vera’s fibromyalgia

Vera may not be able to change her history or her husband. But she can begin to process her emotions in her support group and supplement it with psychotherapy.  She can share her anger about her early life, as well as her fear of being helpless and alone in pain. She can take the pressure off her already overwhelmed neuroendocrine system by acknowledging, naming and expressing her feelings in the moment. A study in Arthritis Care and Research, 2010 suggests that Vera can expect between 50%-70% improvement in functioning and feel less pain if she does so.

© Copyright 2010 by Jeanette Raymond. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Amy

    October 29th, 2010 at 2:31 PM

    Isn’t it amazing that the many ways our mental well being can also affect the way that our physical health plays out as well? I know there have been times in my own life when I have really been down emotionally and my physical health has taken a tool too! The body is amazing though. It’s like you get yourself back together mentally and everything else seesm to fall into place. Wonderful how the mind really does have the ability to heal sometimes.

  • Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

    October 29th, 2010 at 5:01 PM

    Amy thank you for your comments. The mind and body are really the same thing, since emotions have chemical markers that affect how the brain regulates our hormones and organ functions. That’s why it’s so important to process negative feelings so that they don’t clog up an otherwise healthy endocrine system and make you sick.

  • jake

    October 29th, 2010 at 7:31 PM

    it’s often seen that childhood troubles have a lasting impact on a person’s life.I think a remedy for this would be to provide free counseling to couples in troubled households with regard to parenting.

  • Johnna

    October 30th, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    You do not know how happy it makes me to see that so many people are finally coming to the realization just how closely interrelated the mind body and spirit actually are. One cannot be happy and healthy without everything working together and forming that perfect alignment. Sometimes we work hard to get one aspect of our lives in shape without giving a second thought to the others. A truly healthy person does not work that way. We have to have it all come together to make the ideal.

  • Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

    October 31st, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    thanks for your comments Jake and Johanna. Yes, childhood including prenatal influences have a lasting and often irreversible affect on the development of the systems needed for stress resilience. When childhoods are filled with continuous and long term stresses including environmental and relationship based – the immune system never gets a chance to develop strong and effective coping mechanisms.

    Mind and body are indeed the same thing, just on different levels. Every feeling and sensation has a chemical and cellular correlate – we just aren’t aware of it consciously.
    but it affects the way we react to the next episode of stress.

  • fibromyalgia

    July 11th, 2011 at 12:32 AM

    I had fun reading this article! thumbs up for making this nice and informative post!

  • stephanie

    September 15th, 2011 at 4:32 PM

    That’s my story… emotional and verbal abuse from my dad and lon episode where i was sort of going thru that again with my husband and the feeling of being helpless and never secure ……fear!!! and pain started from then but strangely on focused in the neck arm and shoulder and back area .. gradually migrated to other parts of my body

  • Robin

    February 20th, 2020 at 11:16 AM

    My Dad traveled for business about 85 percent of the time. He was never there for me emotionally. My mother would, as my sister would say, suck us up only to spit us back out. My sister and I had a mother-daughter bond more so than my mother and I. She left for college when I was about 4 and a half. I was devastated, and felt completely abandoned. My brother that was 5 years older than me was doted on by my mother as her “favorite” which she admitted to me in my teens. I never felt quite good enough to get her love-approval. Whenever I thought I was there she would say or do something to knock down my self esteem. My dad would call from the road and she would complain to him about any and everything no matter how small an issue. He never asked to talk to me. He was a “functioning “ alcoholic which I’m sure affected how he related to us. When he was home they would bicker for hours. There was always a conflict, and my Mother would criticize my Dad for anything. Even after he quit drinking. I would spend hours in my room to avoid their bickering . I would be depressed and brooding in my room. Nobody ever noticed, or cared. There was no praise for good grades. No help on homework. So I grew up not being close to anyone. It had a profound effect on me. Beginning in my teen years I had depression and anxiety. Later I married an abuser who further cut down my self esteem and treated me as being unworthy. When I was 29 and pregnant with my 3rd child I left him and moved to another state. At this point my relationship with my sister was almost non existent. I developed all the symptoms of fibromyalgia at age 30. Still fighting it with many other serious health issues as well. I have taken anti depressants since I was 35 years old and I am 59 now. Have a host of physical issues and impending surgery. I definitely can tell you that the way I grew up stunted my social functioning and ability to bond with other people. I have recently joined a support group. Thanks for hearing my story.❤️

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