Using Sports Psychology to Live Better with RA

Patient Expert
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A diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) does not necessarily mean that you must let go of your goals and dreams. Instead, by combining a sprinkling of your life before RA, a dash of creative thinking, a dollop of brain science, and a healthy helping of sports psychology, you can remix your goals into something that serves you well as you move forward with your life.

My experience

I have a toolbox of strategies that I use on a daily basis that help me live as well as possible.

Before the day takes on a rhythm of its own, I engage in a five-minute sports psychology activity. Over the course of my life, I enjoyed competitive swimming, windsurfing, cross-country skiing, cycling, and hiking. In my mind, I relive one of those activities in great detail, activating muscle memory in the process. Next, I determine the location, the temperature and even how I'm dressed for that activity. I infuse the entire experience with positive emotions.

This exercise helps shift my focus to what I can do, even if it's a distant memory. It's a wonderful tool to help transform stress, and a pleasant way to set and accomplish my goals of greater mobility and less pain.

Physiological changes

Whenever I speak to a group, there's an experiential exercise I like to do. I ask everyone to close their eyes and slow their breathing. I then take them on an imaginary trip to Tuscany, where I describe an early morning walk in great detail, activating as many senses as possible. When we reach a lemon grove, I instruct the group to imagine choosing and taking a bite from the large and juicy lemon they're holding. Without fail, most people screw up their faces, lick their lips and report that they are salivating. This is a dramatic example of the physiological changes that occur, even when there is no lemon in the room. Real or imagined, we're responding, so why not develop skills to respond in a way to get you closer to what you want?

In The Champion's Mind – How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, Jim Afremow writes: "The brain does not always differentiate between real and vividly imaged experiences because the same systems in the brain are deployed for both types of experience."

The rationale

Sports psychology marries psychological and behavioral principles in order to impact sport and exercise performance.

When talking to sports psychologist Laura Farres, Phd, she has this to say: "The pictures we see in our minds, the sensations we feel in our bodies, and the emotions we associate with movement and regular exercise will play a significant role in our motivation and confidence to pursue those activities. The use of imagery as a tool for enhancing performance has long been associated with high performance sport, however the use of imagery should not be limited to that area. More and more attention is being paid to the use of imagery as a tool for enhancing individuals' health and wellness. Research indicates that individuals can enhance their motivation, commitment, confidence, and skills by incorporating imagery as a regular part of their daily routine."

Make it work for you

Perhaps you were never into sports and can't see how this can help. But be willing to experiment and to patiently wait for results, which can be subtle.

"The mind leads and the body follows. How we think profoundly affects how we perform," writes Dr. Saul L. Miller in Performing Under Pressure – Gaining the Mental Edge in Business and Sport.

An exercise

Start with this simple exercise to harness the power of your mind. In this visualization exercise, you are going to imagine what it feels like to sit down gracefully, rather than flopping into a chair -- as so many of us do when flaring:

  1. Close your eyes. Slow and deepen your breathing.
  2. Imagine your chair in a favorite place -- the garden, the beach, your favorite room. What sounds do you hear? What do you see? Why is this place special? How does it make you feel?
  3. See yourself walking to the chair, turning around and elegantly sitting down. As you do, you can feel your knees bending, your muscles working, knowing that you are fully supported by your body. Ahhh, it feels so great4. Move to the edge of the chair and change the position of your feet in order to stand up. Now, stand up, as easily as you sat down. You feel your muscles working to help you do this. It's almost as if there is a string pulling you up by the top of your head. Repeat.

Experiment with other actions and activities: shampooing your hair, eliminating that "Franken-walk," cycling, dancing, swimming...

If you think exercises borrowed from sports psychology have no place in your life, think again. Your efforts to get through your day with RA can require the same amount of energy and fortitude as that of most athletes. Go for the gold in your own mind. Then, wait and watch what happens in your body.

See More Helpful Articles:

Exercise for All Levels of RA

5 Ways to Exercise with RA

Benefits of Yoga for RA Patients


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.

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