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Stress and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Researchers still don't fully understand the connection between stress and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But they do know that stress makes RA worse. For millions of people living with RA, stress can aggravate RA pain. It can be a vicious cycle: RA causes stress, and stress exacerbates the symptoms.

The cause may be partly chemical. When you're stressed, chemical messengers flood the brain and body; those messengers can then trigger the production of other chemicals that can cause inflammation. Regardless of the precise connection, experts tell people with RA to reduce stress in their lives. It can help them feel better -- both mentally and physically. Here are four ways to reduce stress when you're living with RA.  

RA Stress Buster 1: Get Physical Activity                                                       

  • Go for aerobic exercise. When your joints ache, you may not feel like going for a brisk walk or swimming laps. However, regular exercise has concrete benefits for people with RA. It reduces pain, improves mood, reduces stress, and helps keep joints mobile. Make sure to follow your doctor's advice: Some people need to rest during flares.
  • Try strength training and range-of-motion exercises. In addition to aerobic exercise, weight lifting and resistance training can help people with RA build stronger muscles to support their joints. Researchers have also found that yoga and tai chi can help people with RA strengthen muscles, calm the mind, and reduce pain.
  • Consider physical therapy. Exercise helps relieve stress. So, if RA symptoms get in the way of exercise, work with a physical therapist -- one who specializes in treating people with RA. You'll learn ways to build strength, feel better, and reduce stress.

RA Stress Buster 2: Calm Your Mind

  • Relax mindfully. Studies have found that mindful meditation can help improve mood, reduce distress, and ease pain. As you meditate, focus on what you experience in the present moment, such as your breathing. Aim for awareness and acceptance of living in the moment. Other meditative techniques such as deep breathing and guided imagery may help, too. In guided imagery, you form mental images of places or situations you find relaxing. Try to use all your senses, and imagine seeing it, smelling it, feeling it. 
  • Get relaxing sleep. Get up and go to bed at the same time each day to set a regular sleep cycle. If you can, don't take work home from the office. Turn off the TV, computer, and phone at least an hour before bed.

RA Stress Buster 3: Make Some Lifestyle Changes

  • Work around problems. When RA symptoms flare up, everyday tasks can become painful and frustrating. Don’t just suffer -- come up with solutions. If typing hurts your hands, look into voice recognition software for your computer. Maybe new utensils with bigger grips will make cooking easier. Small improvements could have a big effect on your pain and stress level.
  • Don't smoke. While some people with RA smoke to deal with the stress of their condition, that's not a good idea. Studies have found that smoking can make RA worse and make medication less effective.
  • Do what works. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to stress reduction. Think about activities that have calmed you in the past, such as talking to a trusted friend, reading on the patio, or seeing a movie. Build those calming activities into your weekly schedule -- even when you don't feel you have the time. If you push yourself too hard and get stressed out, your RA symptoms may flare up, and that could really throw you off track.

RA Stress Buster 4: Get Support

  • See a therapist. Talk to a psychologist, social worker, or counselor. Together, you can learn new ways to cope with daily stress at work and home, as well as explore deeper, unsettled issues. If your stress is getting unmanageable, medication for anxiety or depression may help, too.
  • Join a support group. By meeting other people with RA, you'll learn new ways to cope with symptoms and feel less alone. Crunched for time? Online support groups offer support and access to others living with RA. Studies have found that support groups can even reduce pain.
  • Take a role in your treatments. Research shows that people with RA who take an active role in their treatment feel less pain. And they need to see the doctor less often. Learn about your disease. Ask your doctor questions. You'll gain a sense of control by becoming a well-informed participant in your own care -- and that can cut down on your stress.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on March 22, 2014

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