The pressure of coping with arthritis can really ratchet up your stress and anxiety – a condition that affects as many as 1 in 3 people with arthritis. And that, in turn, can worsen the symptoms of chronic diseases and contribute to a host of other problems.
“When we are stressed or perceive a threat, our body responds with physiologic responses that prepare us to fight or escape the enemy,” says Rudy Nydegger, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at Union Graduate College in Schenectady, N.Y. “Our heart rate and breathing speed up, our muscles tense and blood flow to the brain increases, putting us in a state of high awareness.”
That can help protect you if the enemy is an attacking tiger and the threat ends quickly. But when ongoing stress leads to anxiety (excessive worry), it can result in a heightened awareness of symptoms – for instance, pain feels worse – as well as increased susceptibility to infection and risk of other health problems, including heart disease. Anxiety can have indirect health impacts, too, if it leads to inactivity, interferes with sleep or leads you to eat unhealthy foods for comfort.
Use this knowledge to make these healthy lifestyle changes to reduce stress and counteract its effects.
Get Moving. Regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do to relieve anxiety, because it boosts the production of feel-good endorphins and the neurohormone norepinephrine. It also has many direct benefits for arthritis, including strengthening joint-supporting muscles and helping with weight loss.
Practice Deep Breathing. Focus on breathing for relaxation. Here’s one exercise to try: Breathe in for a count of five and then breathe out for a count of five. Repeat for several minutes.
Seek Counseling. Psychotherapists use cognitive behavioral therapy to help you change behaviors and the way you think about situations that may be causing or contributing to your anxiety to ultimately help you feel better.
Try Medications. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs called anxiolytics are some of the medications used to treat anxiety. These are often used short-term and should be in conjunction with counseling; otherwise, anxiety will return when the medication is stopped, says Nydegger.
Author: Mary Anne Dunkin for the Arthritis Foundation
- Stress & Worry Affect Rheumatoid Arthritis
- For more content like this, subscribe to Arthritis Today Magazine