7 Ways to Reduce the Stress of Living with RA
It's something that's part of everyone's life. The world moves faster these days, and everyone's burning the candle at both ends. Add a chronic illness, such as rheumatoid arthritis, to the mix and the stress increases exponentially.
In addition to juggling all the regular aspects of your life, if you have RA, you also have to worry about the disease’s impact on your future and present. You worry about keeping track of doctors’ appointments, medications, the information you collect off the internet—some of it scary—pain, side effects and how you'll get the lid off the pickle jar. At a time when you need to lower your stress levels, the anxiety that comes with managing your RA can also worsen how you feel physically—increasing your pain and increasing other effects, such as stomach problems and headaches.
So, what can you do? Let me share seven ways to help you reduce your stress.
Treat your disease
So much of the stress of RA is related to its symptoms. Pain and fatigue makes everything harder. The unpredictability and worry about having your joints become inflamed and swollen can make it next to impossible to unwind. Finding a medication that suppresses your symptoms is a big part of reducing your stress. If you haven't yet found a way to go into remission, reducing your symptoms can help. Talk to your rheumatologist about how to get better control of your disease.
Manage your pain
Pain and stress are the evil twins of RA. Being in pain is very stressful. On the other hand, being stressed-out can make your pain worse and trigger flares. Before you know it, you're in a vicious cycle, with pain and stress feeding off each other. When you talk to your rheumatologist about getting control of your RA, also bring up pain management. You may also benefit from seeing a pain specialist, especially someone who addresses treatment from a multidisciplinary approach.
Get the rest you need
RA comes with a healthy dollop of fatigue. In fact, people with RA usually need more sleep than others—10 hours of sleep a night, or eight hours with a two-hour nap during the day. Getting the rest you need helps you manage your disease, decreasing the risk of flares and unmanageable pain. Being honest with yourself about this particular aspect of your RA can be difficult—our society likes to emphasize mind over body. But life with a chronic illness means your mind and your body have to work together. The reality is that most people would probably be healthier and less stressed if they got more rest.
Exercise can be a very useful tool in managing stress. Using your body gets you out of your head and disengaged from worry. Exercise releases endorphins, which makes you feel better and may even decrease your pain levels. When you have RA, however, it's important to exercise in a way that doesn't make things worse. Ask your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist who can help you establish an exercise program that gets you moving within your physical limits and without putting undue strain on your joints.
Mindfulness is a stress-management technique that's particularly useful for people who live with chronic illness. In the audio program Mindfulness for Beginners, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines this practice as "paying attention in a particular way--on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally." It's a technique that teaches you to focus on the present and to disengage from worrying about the future. This can help you connect to the good things happening in your life and to manage stress when it does occur.
When we are stressed-out or in pain, breathing becomes more shallow. This increases levels of adrenaline and releases stress hormones, making the situation worse. There are a number of simple breathing techniques that can help calm you down and cope with stressful situations. Sometimes, the key to finding calm is as simple as taking a deep breath.
Seek out the positive
RA can be a very serious disease, and reading about it can lead to a serious case of freaking out. Being careful about where you get your information can be an effective way of reducing your stress. Choose websites that are realistic about the challenges, but also provide helpful hints on how to manage your life and your disease. Emphasizing what's good in your life doesn't make you a Pollyanna. It just means you want to make the best of things.
Lene Andersen is the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain.