6 Ways to Manage Stress With Rheumatoid Arthritis
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The link between stress and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is well-established.
“It's complex, but the two are related almost in a circular or cyclical pattern, says Bella Fradlis, MD, a rheumatologist at the Orange Regional Medical Center in Middletown, New York. “Increased stress levels can actually worsen symptoms of RA by increasing systemic [body-wide] inflammation.”
Authors of a study published in June 2019 in theEuropean Journal of Rheumatologypoint out that stress and depression should be considered a possible reason for RA flares in people that haven’t been exposed to other triggers. Stress and depression could also be the reason why some people with RA don’t get better despite trying a lot of treatment strategies.
For these reasons alone, it’s important to finding ways to manage stress with RA, Dr. Fradlis says. Especially when combined with medicines like disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), getting stress under control can reduce the need for other medication such as corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
How to Stress Less With RA
There are a number of different things you can try to manage stress and help keep RA under control. Start with these strategies:
1. Exercise regularly. Staying active can seem like a huge hurdle at times, but regular exercise can keep joints from stiffening up, strengthen muscles, and lift your mood. It might seem like exercise will hurt, but in in the end it can actually help reduce joint pain. Exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight. Aerobic exercises like brisk walking, jogging, swimming, and Zumba are all good choices. What’s more, options like yoga and tai chi can lower stress levels while increasing flexibility. Just remember to listen to your body and don’t overdo it, especially during an RA flare.
2. Join a support group. Support groups offer interaction with other people who really understand what it’s like to live with RA day to day, Fradlis says. This can be a huge de-stressor: having a chance to vent, and hearing about other people’s experiences. You can also pick up smart coping strategies that others with RA have tried, from ways to get dressed quickly for work in the morning, to setting a peaceful tone and rhythm for your day. As time goes by and you get your RA under control, you may even discover a desire to mentor new members, which can give you a new sense of purpose.
Talk to your doctor about joining either an in-person support group near your home, or an online forum, such as CreakyJoints, a free online community of support and resources for people with all forms of arthritis.
3. Keep a gratitude journal. When struggling with an RA flare, it’s easy to focus on the stress of anticipating and experiencing joint pain and stiffness. In this swirl of discomfort and frustration, it can be easy to forget the things in life to be grateful for. For some people, writing in a gratitude journal can really help focus on the good things in life, Fradlis says. It can help you relax, improve your mood, and even distract you from RA pain. Journaling in general can also be an effective and inexpensive way to release stress.
4. Practice mindfulness.Taking time out of your day to stop, relax, breathe, and focus may help you manage the pain and stress of RA, according to the Arthritis Foundation. In fact, a review published in 2019 inAnnals of Behavioral Medicine found that practicing mindfulness meditation can help improve pain, feelings of depression, and quality of life — which are all important when you have a chronic condition like RA. If you don’t know where to start, consider trying a guided meditation to help restore your emotional and physical health.
5.Cultivate your sense of humor. “The old adage 'Laughter is the best medicine' might not be so crazy after all,” says Victoria K. Shanmugam, MD, director of the division of rheumatology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Researchers who published an article in November 2014 inImmunologyagree that happiness and healthiness go hand in hand, noting growing evidence that “our emotional and immune states share a complex and bi-directional relationship with one another.”
6. Unplug and get some rest. Getting a good night’s sleep can help you manage stress and RA, Fradlis says. Turn off the TV and other electronics at least an hour before going to sleep. Leave your cell phone in another room. Unwind by reading a book or listening to music. You may even try starting a “worry diary” to confine the time you let yourself ruminate and worry — and thereby free up your nights for sleep.
Ultimately the best way to manage the stress of living with RA is to do what works for you, Fradlis says. You know best what makes you happy, whether it’s chatting with a friend, cuddling with a pet, making art, or practicing meditation. Find what relaxes you and make it part of your daily routine.
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