Overcoming Rheumatoid Arthritis Burnout

How to recognize and address burnout while living with a chronic health condition.

Mindfulness exercises like meditation or tai chi can help you reduce, overcome, and prevent burnout.

One of the most difficult things about managing rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is the fact that it is a chronic condition.

In medical terms, chronic means “lasting a long time.” While RA is a chronic condition, it’s perhaps more accurately described as a lifelong condition. Although RA can go into remission—even for long stretches of time—it never truly goes away.

Because RA is a lifelong condition, it requires lifelong treatment. This means appointments with a rheumatologist and taking medications on a consistent schedule. It means maintaining a degree of vigilance to avoid potential triggers that can cause symptoms to flare. It means budgeting for the out-of-pocket costs of treatment.

Keeping up with treatment can be exhausting.

It can also be frustrating. Symptoms can appear and/or get worse for no apparent reason at all—and can also do this at the most inconvenient times. A medication that was working well for a while may start working less well—again, for no apparent or obvious reason. In some cases, finding a medication that works well can take a long time—and you may begin to wonder if there is a point to trying a different medication when so many haven’t worked.

Given the effort and frustration of living with RA, it’s no surprise that many people with chronic health conditions like RA experience burnout.

The symptoms of burnout

Burnout is a specific type of exhaustion, a state that a person finds themselves in when they have experienced too much stress over too long a period of time without any end in sight. The exhaustion a person feels can be mental, emotional, and physical. Different people experience different symptoms, but many describe feeling emotionally drained, having a cynical or negative outlook about life, or feeling numb, distant, and unable to cope.

People experience burnout for many different reasons—work, family responsibilities, financial stress, relationships, and caregiving—and in many cases, it’s not just one thing that causes burnout, but a collection of several stressors.

The consequences of burnout

Managing a chronic illness like RA can feel like a full-time job, taking up significant amounts of time and energy and resources. Having an inflammatory condition like RA also means you have fewer resources to begin with—there will be days when you feel fatigued and days where you’re coping with pain and other symptoms, which can make everything else you have to do more difficult and more challenging.

Burnout is not something you can ignore—especially when you are living with RA. Being in a constant state of stress and exhaustion negatively impacts mental health, physical health, and quality of life.

It’s also important to note that stress is a potential trigger for RA flares, and that burnout will make it more difficult to find the motivation you need to follow an RA treatment plan. In other words, burnout has the potential to make RA worse.

Overcoming burnout

There are also strategies that you can implement to help reduce, overcome, and prevent burnout. Here are a few examples:

  • Make time for things you enjoy. Even simple things like reading a book or watching your favorite TV show can give your mind a break.
  • Make time for things that are important. Hobbies and friendships can provide an important sense of fulfillment and purpose.
  • Eat a nutritious diet, make time for exercise, and get enough sleep.
  • Try to spend time outside, especially in a natural setting like a park.
  • Try mindfulness exercises like meditation or tai chi.
  • Connect with other people who have RA. Look for a support group that meets online or in person.
  • Work with a counselor, therapist, or other provider that specializes in mental health.

If you are experiencing burnout the most important thing you can do is talk to your healthcare provider—about how you feel, what you are struggling with, and how it’s impacting how you manage RA. It’s important that a treatment plan addresses the ways that RA impacts your life, as well as the ways that your life impacts RA.

Article sources open article sources

Stephanie Bernell and Steven W. Howard. Use Your Words Carefully: What Is a Chronic Disease? Frontiers in Public Health, 2016. Vol. 4.
Cleveland Clinic. Rheumatoid Arthritis. Top 10 Frustrations I Regularly Experience Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Eileen Davidson. April 5, 2022.
Polly Campbell. Battling Arthritis Burnout. Arthritis Foundation.
Psychology Today. Burnout.
Depression: What is burnout? June 18, 2020.
Arthritis Foundation. How Stress Affects Arthritis.
Cleveland Clinic. Chronic Illness.

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