The pressure of coping with arthritis can ratchet up 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.