Mind Over Stress: Finding the Right Balance

By Rebecca Gillett, MS OTR/L, Live Yes! With Arthritis Co-host and arthritis patient

Stress. Just the word itself can invoke the feeling. If you live with arthritis, you know there is a spectrum of stress-inducing triggers that might propel you into a flare of varying intensity. I am not just talking about the mental stress of living with a chronic disease, which is a huge factor, but also the physical stress you put your body through from the moment you slowly make your way out of bed. Everything we do, think and feel can take on a toll on our physical and emotional well-being, which then can affect our arthritis pain.

When you are navigating a new diagnosis or waking up to new pain you have not experienced, it can be incredibly stressful. Your thought train leaves the station — what did I do to cause this? What can I do to stop this pain? What will actually work to stop the pain? How am I supposed to get ready for my workday when I have this much pain? What if I call in sick? Will I be in jeopardy of losing my job? What will everyone think if I cannot do what I am supposed to do today? And then full stop. Next thing you know, your pain level is even higher now.

Surviving 2020 and a pandemic has just added to the daily stress most of us with arthritis already experience. “That’s so 2020.” You’ve heard it or you’ve said it, I’m sure, so you know what I mean. “2020” is now an adjective. A global pandemic has wreaked havoc on what we have all seen as “normal.” 2020 has been everything but normal.

2020 has compounded another layer of stress and anxiety that may perhaps amplify our arthritis symptoms. The fear of contracting this novel disease and what it means for those of us in this high-risk category for developing a severe case of COVID-19 has been top of mind for all of us. The social isolation, the lack of access to our usual ways of managing our pain and symptoms, the financial stress if you’ve experienced a loss of income or a job, seeing your doctor in-person, worrying about safety when going grocery shopping and not being able to see family or friends. So many things have added up to derail our plans, routines and treatments.

But how and why does stress affect arthritis? What can we do to combat the effects stress can have on our body and mind to take back control? Just how can we find our balance?

Both my co-host and friend, Julie and I have been on this roller coaster ride that is 2020 with all of you. It’s been a really hard year. We have both struggled with the change in routines, the financial stress, the uncertainty and the fear of contracting a novel virus for which we are still learning more about every day. When we recorded this episode of the Live Yes! With Arthritis podcast — Mind Over Stress, the timing could not have been more perfect. Both of us were feeling the heavy weight of the world and trying to survive. It was the therapy session we so desperately needed.

Our guest for this episode, Dr. Maria Juarez-Reyes, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Medicine at Stanford University, helped guide us toward strategies we can employ to reduce our stress and anxiety.

Julie and I both talked about recent situations where we realized we were on a path of stress destruction affecting our moods, relationships and arthritis symptoms.

I had gotten myself to a point of anxiety and stress that started having real physical effects on me — my blood pressure was running high, despite being on medication for it, I was not sleeping well and waking in the middle of the night with anxiety and panic, and my spine and joints were stiff and painful. I found myself so irritable and stressed out, but my family were the ones suffering from my miserable moods. It was not a happy place. It wasn’t until I was talking about it with a friend that I realized how much of a funk I was stuck in and needed to find a way out. I felt like I was on a train going full speed ahead and I needed to get off at the next stop or my health and my relationships would suffer. But the sheer act of saying it out loud and being self-aware of how I was feeling is what finally helped me to merge toward an exit ramp.

This, we learned from Dr. Juarez-Reyes, is part of what’s called “noting.” It’s a strategy of being mindful and recognizing what’s happening, acknowledging it and making “note” of it. By doing this, she says, we’re more able to let go of whatever it is that’s causing us anxiety or stress. It helps us to get off that stress destruction train and shift into a different way of thinking, to take action or better access the tools we know can help reduce our stress.

A short hike to this breathtaking view helped me to exhale and realize how important it is to take the time to decompress. Canyonlands National Park was the stress train stop I needed.

I didn’t know there was a name for the strategy I had employed to stop my stress and anxiety from continuing to have a domino effect on my well-being. I noted and recognized my heightened anxiety and stress levels were not conducive to anything in my life. I acknowledged how it was affecting me physically, mentally and emotionally. Then, I was able to say, “OK, what can I control to reduce my stress levels? What tools can I access to help me decrease my stress?”

I had to put boundaries in place. Stop working such long hours and weekends. Go back to my walking and yoga routine. Move my body more. Get back to daily mindfulness and meditation practices. Unplug and get off the grid. Get myself into nature.

Found my balance again while camping and hiking at Arches National Park.

Hiking and camping are two of my family’s favorite things to do together. It was just what I needed and exactly what we did. I came back from a family camping trip no longer carrying that boulder on my chest that was debilitating everything in my world. I realized I had lost my balance and needed to hit a reset button.

Dr. Juarez-Reyes also discusses at what point medication might be needed. When I was first diagnosed, taking an anti-anxiety medication allowed me to get symptoms under control enough to be able to really figure out what triggers were causing my flares. It wasn’t a medication I needed long-term, but I needed it at that time. It helped me realize there were actually some things I could control.

If any of this has resonated with you, I hope you, too, can find a way to get off the stress train. Pause and take a deep breath. Note it. Then, listen to this Mind Over Stress episode and get empowered to find your balance.

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