Stress, It's in You To Change

Patient Expert

Have you considered the role that stress plays in your life with RA? Through my own journey with RA, I learned that stress had a starring role - it was an unlikeable lead character. Are you ready to move stress off center stage?

How much time do you spend immersed in negative thoughts and emotions? It's pretty easy to slip into a boatload of anger, despair, fear, frustration, impatience, sadness, worry, upset  when you have a chronic illness. But, did you know that the more you set sail on those stormy seas of emotion, the more you could be contributing to the inflammatory response? Also, the side effects from those stress hormones can lead to more of those negative feelings - the ones you don't want.

I became aware that my typical pattern of  worryworryworry would lead to frustration, then anger. It was a merry-go-round that was far from merry - one that seemed to spin faster and faster, leaving me feeling exhausted, and emotionally and physically inflamed. Perhaps this sounds familiar?

Read on for some tips to help you  address and undress your stress.

Develop your awareness.

As you go about your day, you are responding to everything you see, hear, smell, touch and even, taste. Dependent upon your perceptions, you may be elicting the stress response - a cascade of biochemicals that put you into flight, fight or freeze.

For example, have you noticed that you may have taken an instant dislike to someone after you've heard them say a few words on the phone? Suddenly, your posture changes - you feel uneasy, as you begin to breathe a little quicker and more shallowly. Upon reflection, you realize that this person has the same voice as a classmate - one who gave you a very hard time, all those years ago.

Contrast this with another sense. There's a reason that realtors advise sellers to bake some cookies or cinnamon buns. The freshly-baked smell swiftly transports the prospective buyer back, back, back to grand-mother's kitchen and the comforting memories of home and love. Subtle physiological changes start to occur as muscles relax, the heart rate slows, and a greater feeling of openess is experienced, which is what the realtor is hoping for.

Get curious about how you feel in response to the events, people and places that are part of your world. Does this tie in to an earlier stressful event/memory? Do you notice a pattern of flaring after a particularly stressful period? What were your thoughts and emotions the day, week, month, year or decade before?

This is powerful information. Once you know what you're doing, you can take steps to change how you're thinking and feeling.

The people, places and things you love.

When stressed, people often stop doing the things that bring them joy - the things that allow them to feel better - emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.

When your disease is active, or when there is joint damage, it's understandable why the pleasurable things are erased from the schedule. You feel as if you have nothing left. This is when it's crucial to make time for something, someplace or someone you love, if only for five minutes. Notice how you feel after those five minutes. Look hard for subtle changes, because when you find them, you will be encouraged to go a little longer the next time.

One of the things rheumatoid arthritis has taught me is to be flexible, maybe not in my joints, but definitely in my thinking. I'm a swimmer, and as a result of surgeries, I've had to change how I swim. By changing my attitude and adapting my strokes, I can still take part in an activity that gives me great joy. At first, I was upset that I could no longer do the strokes the way I used to teach them, but I realized that being angry served no purpose other than to trigger the stress response.

If you can't adapt your favorite activities, take the time to explore something new. Get creative. Make it a priority to do what makes your heart sing.


What do you say to yourself when you awaken with painfully swollen joints? If you were like me, I used to immediately get pulled into swirling currents of anger, despair, fear or uncertainty. "Oh no, not again I hope this is not the start of a big flare-up. How long will this one last? I have too much to do, today!" It was a running commentary that went on for far too long.

Instead, I silenced the voice of fear, and allowed one filled with compassion, encouragement and hope to speak. "There's lots I can do to minimize my pain and inflammation. Why do I think this is going to be a big flare-up? I'll spend some time recalling a pleasurable event, instead of focusing on something that may not become a reality."

What you say to yourself, not only in the morning, but throughout the day, can be a constant source of stress to you. Become aware of that self-defeating talk. Soon as you notice that you are doing it, substitute it with something positive. It could be a favorite memory. Pull out your photo albums. Sing a song. Think about someone you love. When you soak in negative thoughts and emotions, you flood your system with cortisol and other stress hormones.


With regular practice, you become empowered to change how you think and feel.

Stress, it's in you to change.

  • Start small.
  • Do frequently.
  • Notice how you feel, before and after. Subtle changes count!
  • Repeat.
  • Feel better.
  • See my 31 Days of Stress, Undressed project.

Marianna Paulson is known as Auntie Stress. On her website, you'll find links to her two blogs, Auntie Stress Cafe and the award-winning,  A Rheumful of Tips. She also publishes a mostly monthly newsletter called The Connective Issue. Sign up  here  to receive information, tips, and to learn about giveaways.