Coping With Emotions When You Have RA

Learn to manage the ups and downs of being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

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Medically reviewed in June 2022

Updated on June 3, 2022

No matter your personal situation, receiving a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can arouse a gamut of emotions. It's not unusual to experience anger, denial, sadness, and fear, among many other feelings.

For Kelly O’Neill, the overnight appearance of RA 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."

But people with RA don't have to ride an emotional roller coaster. Try these strategies for dealing with the different, frequently intense feelings that often accompany an RA diagnosis:

Learn all you can. Asking your doctor questions about RA is a critical first step, as treatment for the condition has improved by leaps and bounds over the years. With today's therapies, many people with RA have a good chance of going into remission. 

Reading up on RA is also a wise move. You may want to start with established health organizations specializing in rheumatic diseases and joint conditions, such as the Arthritis Foundation and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Stick tight to your tribe. "Find one or two people—spouse, mom, or friends—you can talk to," says O’Neill. "I have one friend who remembers when I could climb up a ladder and put stucco on a house. She doesn't think I sound crazy when I say how much I hurt."

Practice resilience. Though some people naturally seem better able to bounce back from challenges, resilience can be practiced and developed over time. For example, one 2018 meta-analysis and systematic review in BMJ Open found that mindfulness training and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) effectively increased the ability to process, cope with, and pull through hard times. 

But you don’t necessarily need formal interventions to improve your resilience. Concentrating on what you can change—rather than what you can’t—may help. So could expressing gratitude for the good things in your life.

"It is important to focus on what you have, not what you've lost," says O’Neill. "Focus on something positive, not the disease: ‘I folded laundry today and it was a big deal.’"

Chill out. Some studies have shown that relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation and deep breathing can help to ease RA-related pain and anxiety. Meditation may also improve sleep, lower blood pressure, and improve your mood, contributing to your overall physical and mental well-being. Best of all, these techniques are generally considered to be safe for most people, so you can experiment until you find one that works for you. 

Exercise when you can. Getting physical activity is a vital form of treatment for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Not only does working out stretch and strengthen muscles around the joints, it can also encourage good sleep, calm your mind, and relieve pain by promoting the release of endorphins.

"Exercise is empowering—you feel a sense of accomplishment,” O’Neill says. She recently walked about one-third of a mile across the Georgetown Key Bridge in Washington D.C. "I felt I climbed a mountain," she says. "I was so happy I accomplished that."

Before starting a new fitness regimen, speak with a healthcare provider (HCP) about physical activities that fit best with your lifestyle and abilities. Low-impact activities like yoga, tai chi, stretching, and walking are popular recommendations. Ask about balancing exercising with getting sufficient rest, too; the right mix can help reduce fatigue and inflammation.

Article sources open article sources

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Rheumatoid Arthritis: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Steps to Take. September 2019. Accessed June 2, 2022.
Joyce S, Shand F, et al. Road to resilience: a systematic review and meta-analysis of resilience training programmes and interventions. BMJ Open. June 14, 2018. 8(6), e017858.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Rheumatoid Arthritis: In Depth. January 2019. Accessed June 2, 2022.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation: In Depth. April 2016. Accessed June 2, 2022.
Arthritis Foundation. Types of Meditation for Arthritis. 2022. Accessed June 2, 2022.
Arthritis Foundation. Best Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis. 2022. Accessed June 2, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Rheumatoid arthritis: Is exercise important? July 31, 2020. Accessed June 2, 2022.

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