Stress and RA

I’ve always known that stress played a large role in my rheumatoid arthritis. I’ve been frustrated in my efforts to find doctors who would listen to what I had to say about this or address stress as a factor in any way. Rheumatologists have a protocol that they follow, and that’s what they do. It would take a remarkable doctor to incorporate lifestyle management into the protocol, and I’ve yet to find that doctor. I’m left with figuring this out for myself.

When my spring semester ended, I made a list of things I could do to help myself.

  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Recumbent Bike
  • Mineral Baths
  • Whole Food Diet
  • Meditation
  • Normalizing Sleep Patterns
  • Time in Nature
  • Laughter with Friends
  • Regular Zone Out Times
  • Keeping a Journal
  • Brain Training Exercises for Pain Relief
  • Ice Packs and Heating Pads

I haven’t done everything on this list consistently in past six weeks, but I have been working on it, and I’ve seen results. I’ve also been off work, and I can’t discount the importance of time away from the rat race. Still, if time off were enough, I would get well during every school break. That isn’t the case. I’ve had to be proactive about my own health in order to reap the benefits of my break. I go back to work next week, so I will have to doubly commit to keeping myself on track.

I know that stress is my primary trigger for my symptoms because stress and arthritis flairs have been the story of my life. I was in my mid-twenties when I was diagnosed. At the time I was studying for my comprehensive exams for my PhD. I was extremely stressed out because I had planned to take the exams in October but was told without a lot of warning that I would have to take them in February to keep my funding for the following school year. It was a change in policy from the department that did not grandfather in people like me who were caught in the middle. That’s life, right? Sometimes you find yourself drowning in stress. In my case, this particular bout of high anxiety triggered the onset of a chronic autoimmune disease.

Over and over, stress has play a huge role in my disease process. I went into a long remission at one point, but my symptoms reappeared after the death of a close friend that I had been caring for in the final stages of cancer. Those symptoms continued to accelerate despite steadily increasing my medications during the period of my father’s illness and death. By the time my father died, I knew I was at my own rock bottom physically and emotionally. I had to do something to keep going.

I started with diet primarily, but I also recognized that stress management had to be part of the plan. Because I was still working and at one of the most hectic points in the school year, there wasn’t much I could do in those first few weeks, but I did do something. I started by spending just 5-10 minutes a day sitting in a lawn chair in my backyard, sipping on herbal tea. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was a time of deliberate winding down and decompressing. It helped. It didn’t cure me, but it helped to keep me from breaking.

Once the semester was over, I was able to focus more on reducing the impact of accumulated stress. I started using the Calm meditation app. I also started using an app called Curable that is specifically for people with chronic pain. I started keeping a journal, and I made epsom salt baths a priority.

All of this has helped, but it is a work in progress. I will need to continually work on my lifestyle management plan in order to keep up with the stress levels that will inevitably come with a demanding job and unanticipated life events.

Exercise is still something I’m working toward. I’m much improved, but I’m still struggling with pain in my right leg and my left shoulder. I have difficulty establishing an exercise routine because I keep making a little progress with these conditions only to find myself right back where I started all over again.

That brings me to another aspect of lifestyle management that I need to address–ergonomics. With my leg, for example, I know that driving is a problem. With my shoulder, my sleep positions and my posture at my desk are problems. If I can find ergonomic solutions, I believe I will start to make more progress there–but that might be a topic for another post.

My point is that I know stress is a major problem, and I know I have to take charge of managing my stress. I don’t have the option to quit my job. I can’t control when life is going to throw tragedies my way. I can’t help the fact that pain, fatigue, and other issues related to RA are self-perpetuating stressors in and of themselves. I have to just do what I can.

I’m hoping to start walking regularly this week, but if that doesn’t work out, if my leg refuses to cooperate, or it rains all week, or somethings comes up that demands all of my attention, I will start where I am and do what I can.

I’ve been reading a book called The Stress Solution by Rangan Chatterjee. I’ve also been listening to Dr. Chatterjee’s podcast Feel Better, Live More. He recommends a 10 minute morning exercise routine. That brings me back to the same philosophy that inspired my 10 minutes of lawn chair time. Do what you can with the time you have. Do what you can with the ability you have.

If I’m unable to do 30 minute walks, maybe I can do 5-10 minutes of some type of exercise. Possibly I can even do 10 minutes three times a day.

I will get there somehow. That will have to be my mantra for a time.

The topic of how stress affects my health is way too big to explore in one post. This is something I need to revisit again and again on my blog. It is something I need to revisit on a daily basis in my life. Meanwhile, I’m about to put on my walking shoes and go to the grocery store to shop for whole fruits and veggies. I need to spend the afternoon working on school prep and laundry. This evening I will give exercise my some. I will start somewhere and get there somehow. If I want to do more than just exist as a person with chronic illness, I don’t have a choice.