Coping With Emotions When You Have RA

Having rheumatoid arthritis is not uplifting. And RA's frequent sidekick, chronic pain, is no spirit booster either.

Coping With Emotions When You Have RA

"Getting a diagnosis of RA can arouse a gamut of emotions," says Nathan Wei, MD, director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland: "It's not unusual to go through anger, denial, fear, and then acceptance."

For Kelly Young, 47, the overnight appearance of RA seven years ago also brought shock and surprise: "One day I could do 100 push-ups and the next I couldn't pick up my purse or pull the sheets up on the bed," says the director and founder of the Rheumatoid Patient Foundation and creator of RAWarrior.com. "I thought how bad will this get? Will it end? I didn't understand the disease."

Still, both Wei and Young agree that people with RA don't have to fall victim to an emotional roller coaster. Below are tips for calming RA turbulence.

  • Learn all you can. "Asking your doctor questions about RA is critical," says Wei. "A patient who gets RA today may remember how crippled Aunt Maude got." But with today's treatments, a person with RA has a good chance of going into remission. Wei suggests getting more information from the Arthritis Foundation (www.arthritis.org), National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases (www.niams.nih.gov), and the Arthritis Treatment Center (www.arthritistreatmentcenter.com) websites.
  • Stick tight to your peeps. "Find one or two people—spouse, mom, or friends—you can talk to," says Young. "I have one friend who remembers when I could climb up a ladder and put stucco on a house. So she doesn't think I sound crazy when I say how much I hurt."
  • Practice resilience. A 2012 Yale University study interviewed people living in stressful circumstances who seemed resilient. Understanding challenges and how to overcome them distinguished those who were not overwhelmed or depressed. And they tended to focus on what they could change, not what they couldn't. "It is important to focus on what you have, not what you've lost," agrees Young. "Focus on something positive, not the disease: I folded laundry today and it was a big deal."
  • Chill out. Relaxation techniques like meditation can be the tickets for relieving stress, says Wei. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that when 31 RA patients practiced mindfulness meditation for six months, they had fewer emotional symptoms and were less depressed than patients who didn't meditate. Young also recommends deep breathing. "I do that about 11 times a day," she says. "I lie down on the bed—or even stand—and breathe in and out slowly." In a 2011 study of people with RA or other joint diseases, those who practiced mindfulness exercises, which can include deep breathing, significantly reduced their stress and fatigue.
  • Exercise when you can. "Exercise releases endorphins so you get a natural high that relieves pain," says Wei. "Yoga and tai chi (a Chinese art of slow, smooth movements) are relaxing—and they stretch and strengthen muscles around the joints." Young agrees: "Exercise is empowering. You feel a sense of accomplishment." Although Young can't exercise right now, last year she walked across the Georgetown Key Bridge in D.C., about a third of a mile. "I felt I climbed a mountain," she says. "I was so happy I accomplished that."

Medically reviewed in January 2019.

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