What does stress do to my rheumatoid arthritis

Living with a chronic disease like rheumatoid arthritis I try to avoid stress as much as possible. Unfortunately, stress isn\’t always avoidable, and the reality of living with RA is itself quite stressful. The impact of stress on my emotional and physical well-being is significant, with the potential to put me on edge. Considering RA is a progressive systemic autoimmune disease, this is a major concern of mine.

Chronic illness itself brings a whole new level of stress that a healthy person would not fully understand. Balancing medical appointments, overcoming needle phobias or other uncomfortable tests, managing debilitating symptoms, dealing with the effects of chronic illness on our social lives and, of course, the financial burden that accompanies a chronic condition is sure the healthy person average would not understand. the unique stress that comes with living with a chronic illness.

As a disabled single mother living in one of the most expensive cities in North America, I am faced with the double challenge of skyrocketing rent and an ever-increasing cost of living. Unfortunately, disability pay remains the same, falling below the poverty line. As a result, finances are always my biggest stressor, second only to the impact of rheumatoid arthritis on my overall quality of life. I say finances come first because if I had better finances I would most likely have the ability to live healthier with this disease.

The mental impact of stress on my life

Stress often makes me irritable, angry, impatient, overwhelmed and anxious. I become disinterested in life and lose the ability to concentrate because my thoughts are racing in a million directions. I feel insecure, have trouble making decisions, my memory gets worse and I find it hard to enjoy life. Stress causes me to overeat or undereat, clench my jaw, become restless, and not exercise as much as necessary. I will often withdraw from friends, family or any other type of commitment.

Stress is a constant presence in my life and if not addressed, it can consume me, leaving me trapped and paralyzed by intrusive thoughts. What\’s worse, stress can cause many unpleasant symptoms and make my arthritis worse.

What stress and chronic pain feel like

Stress is a vicious cycle for our body, especially when living with a disease that causes widespread chronic pain. The fact that stress causes more pain is itself stressful.

Stress has an impact on our nervous system. When our nervous system is affected by stress, it leads to feelings of tightness, which, in turn, causes our muscles to tighten up, often resulting in painful muscle spasms. These spasms further aggravate our joints and contribute to increased fatigue. Let\’s not forget that stress also increases anxiety and depression, which worsen the perception of pain.

When I\’m stressed, I notice my breathing quickens, my heart rate increases, and my muscles tense. I can feel my body temperature rise and a sense of stiffness set in. This increased muscle tension can intensify the pain caused by arthritis. If I experience a stressful event, I may experience a sudden surge of fatigue within hours, which will affect my ability to function for several days. I feel groggy and tired. Stress can stop me and make me feel paralyzed.

Stress has manifested itself in many symptoms, including hair loss, cold sores, cystic acne, muscle weakness and tension, headaches, increased pain, insomnia, and overwhelming depression or anxiety that consumes me. Stress has even made me suddenly gain weight, either from a chemical imbalance or because it makes me crave unhealthy coping mechanisms, like junk food, cannabis, alcohol, or access to shopping. Much of my financial stress as someone coping with disability means that I often can\’t afford the healthiest groceries to battle my disease, which isn\’t good for my overall well-being either.

Stress doesn\’t just affect us physically, it also impacts our mental resilience, making it more difficult to deal with the symptoms of your illnesses. The longer the stress, the worse the inflammation and the impact on the immune system. I don\’t need a doctor to tell me, I have felt firsthand the physical response to stress and it can be debilitating with rheumatoid arthritis.

This is because stress acts on a physical level by increasing levels of the hormone cortisol in the body. This triggers overactivity of the immune system, a hallmark of inflammatory types of arthritis, while simultaneously reducing the immune system\’s ability to fight harmful germs. After prolonged stress I can find myself sick and have difficulty recovering from the illness.

So yes, stress makes our arthritis worse. It makes everything worse. Stress sucks.

How I deal with stress

From seeking support and setting boundaries to staying active, here\’s how I manage stress and prioritize my well-being.

Ask for help

While I can\’t control everything, I can control how I respond to things, to some extent. Being proactive, realistic, and productive helps me take some stress off, as does asking for help from people I know who are supportive and trustworthy. My support network is crucial.

Say no

Learning to say \”no\” has been a lesson for me. I love people, but trying to make everyone happy can cause me a lot of stress. If I know it\’s going to overwhelm me, put me on edge, or take me away from self-care management, I may have to say no. It\’s okay to be highly protective of your time and energy.

Take it easy

The chronic disease is erratic (and I move at arthritic speed). I remind myself that I am living with a debilitating illness and that I shouldn\’t feel guilty if I have to ask for an extension or can\’t be there because life is getting too overwhelming. I tell my editors, researchers, doctors, media companies, or any associates I\’m working with, when I need extra time or kind reminders. I learned to measure myself.

Stay organised

I am committed to staying as organized as possible. I write everything down, my thoughts, my worries, my to-do lists and so on. This helps me remember them easier and create an action plan when needed.

Plan ahead

After several years of living with this disease and knowing how stress can impact me, I do my best to plan ahead to avoid surprises. Not always possible, but certainly useful.

Have a good cry and swear

Sometimes it gets too much and you have to cry and swear your frustrations. I\’m a big fan of profanity and research has shown that it relieves stress.

Let go of the guilt

I remind myself that what I\’m going through is not my fault. I do my best to try to remove as many of the guilty emotions that come with living with a chronic illness. They\’re not good for me. I don\’t always succeed, but I try to rationalize my negative emotions.

Keep moving and take time to breathe

Even if the stress paralyzes me in my tracks, I have to make sure I keep moving because it helps ease my pain and how I handle stress. When we exercise regularly, our bodies release feel-good chemicals called endorphins.

I don\’t train just one way, I\’ll hike, swim, use my treadmill, elliptical at the gym, strength train, or garden. When I\’m stressed, I try to do the exercise I enjoy the most.

Yoga is a great movement when stressed because it also incorporates deep breathing. When I feel overwhelmed with stress, I make a point of sitting in silence for a few minutes and focusing on deep breathing. This helps put my body into a calmer state, if only slightly.

Eat healthy

I make the best of what I have, even if inflation makes it harder and harder as prices rise. Avoiding sugar and processed foods when stressed can make all the difference.

Get out into nature

Nature has been shown to have remarkable stress-reducing effects by increasing the production of endorphins and dopamine and reducing that annoying inflammation-promoting hormone cortisol.

Pet a pet

Cuddles with my four cats give me immense comfort. Their lovely softness provides a soothing and calming effect when I need it most.

See a therapist and your doctor

If stress is consuming, there\’s no shame in turning to a mental health professional for help. You may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to help you reframe the issues causing you concern and guide you to approach them in a more positive light.

Be a more proactive arthritis patient with Power

ArthritisPower is a patient-driven, patient-focused research registry for joint, bone, and inflammatory skin conditions. You can participate in voluntary research studies on your health conditions and use the app to track your symptoms, disease activity and medications and share with your doctor. Learn more and sign up here.

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