How Stress Affects Rheumatoid Arthritis

Stress can make your RA worse, so you’ll want to take action to keep that from happening.

Researchers still don't fully understand the connection between stress and rheumatoid arthritis. The cause may involve substances related to the stress response and inflammation.

Use these four proven methods to curb stress ASAP.

1. 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, anyway.

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 now, ask your doctor what’s OK for you to do. Pace yourself, too. 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 -- one who specializes in treating people with RA. You'll learn ways to build strength, feel better, and zap stress.

2. Calm Your Mind

Studies show that meditation can help improve mood, reduce distress, and ease pain. Meditation can be as simple as focusing your attention 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. To do this, you picture in your mind places or situations you find relaxing. Try to use all your senses, and imagine seeing it, smelling it, feeling it.

3. 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.


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.

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

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 rheumatoid arthritis worse and make medication less effective.

4. Get Support

Partner with your doctor. Let him know how you’re doing. Tell him 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 Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on March 06, 2020



American College of Rheumatology: “Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

Arthritis Foundation: “Meditation Program Eases Emotional Stress of RA;” “Managing Stress;” “Stifle Your Stress;” and “Can Support Groups Help You Cope?”

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.”

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