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How Stress Affects Rheumatoid Arthritis

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on March 06, 2020

Stress can make rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms worse. Take action to keep that from happening.

Researchers still don't fully understand the link between stress and RA. It may involve things related to your body’s stress response and inflammation.

Use these proven methods to curb stress.

Make Exercise a Priority

When your joints ache, you might not feel like going for a brisk walk or swimming laps. Try your best to do something.

Being active is especially good for people with RA. It eases pain, improves mood, lowers stress, and helps keep joints mobile.

Go for cardio (aerobic exercise). Pick activities that are easy on your joints, like swimming and walking.

Also do strength training. You can use light weights, machines at the gym, resistance bands, or your own body weight (think push-ups and lunges).

Don’t forget flexibility. Tai chi and gentle types of yoga are good for that. They can also be relaxing.

If you’re not active already, ask your doctor what’s OK for you to do. And pace yourself. You may need to take it easier when you have a flare.

If your symptoms get in the way of exercise, work with a physical therapist who specializes in treating people with RA. You'll learn ways to build strength, feel better, and zap stress.

Calm Your Mind

Studies show that meditation can help improve mood, reduce distress, and ease pain. It can be as simple as focusing on your breathing. Your mind will wander to other topics. That’s OK. Just turn your attention back to your breath, or whatever else you choose to focus on.

You could also try guided imagery. Picture in your mind places or situations you find relaxing. Try to use all your senses, and imagine seeing it, smelling it, and feeling it.

Make Some Lifestyle Changes

Work around problems. When RA symptoms flare up, everyday tasks can be harder to do. Look for solutions. If typing hurts your hands, try voice recognition software for your computer. In the kitchen, you might find that new utensils with bigger grips make cooking easier. These little changes can take some of the stress off you.

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Keep up with your 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.

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Do what you love. Think about the things you enjoy doing, such as having coffee with a friend, reading, or seeing a movie. Build those activities into your weekly schedule.

Don't smoke. Some people with RA smoke to deal with the stress of their condition, but that's not a good idea. Studies have found that smoking can make rheumatoid arthritis worse and make medication less effective.

Tackle Stress at Work

Stretch. Aim to take a break every half-hour to stretch, walk around, and clear your head. When you can't, stretch at your desk. Try to move all your joints. Arch your back. Shrug your shoulders. Stretch your arms above your head. Make claws with your hands. Flex your ankles and toes.

Breathe deeply. Take a few deep breaths with your eyes closed or open. Inhale through the nose, feeling your chest expand. Then exhale through your mouth. Repeat.

Relax your muscles. Slowly relax all the muscle groups in your body, starting with your feet and ending with your head. First, tense the muscles for about 8 seconds. Then relax them and feel the tension melt away.

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Focus on a soothing image. Keep pictures on your desk or a slideshow of pictures on your computer that relax you. Try a favorite vacation spot, pictures of loved ones, or adorable kittens. Anything that makes you smile or feel calm helps.

Listen. Slip on a pair of headphones for a few minutes. Play a song that gives you happy, soothing thoughts. Or listen to relaxing natural sounds, like ocean waves or a waterfall.

Smell. Certain scents -- like lavender, chamomile, and sandalwood -- can ease stress for some people. Keep a bottle of scented hand lotion on your desk and use it when you need a little "aromatherapy." Get products with real essential oils instead of artificial scents.

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Write in a journal. When you’re feeling anxious, clear off your desk and take out a pad -- or clear your screen and open a new file -- and write for a few minutes. Studies show that writing down what you're feeling can make you feel better and even lower your blood pressure. If keeping a journal feels awkward, write an email about your feelings to a close friend. When you're done, you can decide whether to send it or just keep it to yourself.

Think about what's stressing you out. We often try to push stuff out of our heads to calm down. But facing it head-on can help. What is it that bothers you? Are you behind on a project? Did your boss say something that upset you? Once you have a clearer sense of the problem, you can come up with a solution. You'll feel more in control and less tense.

Get Support

Partner with your doctor. Let them know how you’re doing. Tell them about any problems you have. Bring up any questions or concerns you have.

See a therapist. Talk to a psychologist, social worker, or counselor. Even a few appointments can help you find ways to handle your challenges.

Join a support group. You can talk with other people who know what you’re going through because they face similar challenges. Online support groups are another option.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American College of Rheumatology: “Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

Arthritis Foundation: “Meditation Program Eases Emotional Stress of RA,” “Managing Stress,” “Stifle Your Stress,” “Can Support Groups Help You Cope?” "Easy Meditation Options for Pain," "How to Manage the Stress of Arthritis."

Job Accommodation Network: “Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees With Arthritis.”

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: “Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

Science Daily: “Brain Pathways Linking Social Stress and Inflammation Identified.”

WebMD Health News: “Smoking May Interfere with RA Treatment” and “Quit Smoking to Ease Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

Cleveland Clinic: "Relaxation and Other Alternative Approaches for Managing Headaches."

Stanley Cohen, MD, clinical professor of internal medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical School; co-director, division of rheumatology, Presbyterian Hospital, Dallas.

Darlene Lee, NP, nurse practitioner, practice manager, rheumatology clinic, University of California, San Francisco.

Jane McCabe, MS, OTR/L, CAPS, occupational therapist, Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist, Laguna Hills, CA.

Patience White, MD, rheumatologist, vice president of public health, Arthritis Foundation.

 

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