It is impossible to escape stress. This is particularly true at the moment as all of us face the challenges of lockdown and the anxieties associated with Covid-19. We might be concerned about becoming ill, the mental challenges of isolation, or have financial worries linked to being unable to work. Maybe we are worried about vulnerable friends and relatives or trying to cope with the stress of overcrowding or working at home with young children. If you add arthritis into the mix, stress can become overwhelming.
To mark Stress Awareness Month, we are looking at how stress affects people with arthritis and what they can do about it.
What is stress?
Causes of stress vary from person to person – what might be manageable for you may cause someone else to feel out of control and stressed, and vice versa. When we feel stressed, our body releases chemicals into the bloodstream which produce physical changes – the ‘fight, flight or freeze response’. Breathing quickens, the heart rate increases and muscles tense.
Is stress a bad thing?
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing as it can motivate us to act when we need to. In our ancestors, the bodily changes brought about by stress were vital to help them deal with potentially life-threatening situations. As we have evolved, however, the things that cause us stress (such as money worries, relationship problems etc.) are rarely life-threatening and this is where our stress response can become problematic.
Our bodies are designed to respond to the immediate threat and then return to their pre-stressed state. However, when stressful situations continue over a prolonged period of time and we are unable to return to our pre-stressed state we can start to suffer from chronic stress. This can have a damaging effect on our health.
The impact on people with arthritis
People with arthritis are particularly at risk from prolonged stress. The increased tension in your muscles amplifies arthritic pain and causes symptoms to worsen. Stress also triggers the immune system’s inflammatory response, which can exacerbate joint damage and the pain perceived. Inflammation is what causes joint damage in rheumatoid arthritis, as well as lupus, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and other inflammatory forms of the disease.
Unfortunately, it can become a vicious cycle. Pain, fatigue and interrupted sleep, can lead to increased stress and worsening symptoms. Tiredness and pain may make you less inclined to exercise, but becoming more sedentary can further increase joint stiffness and inflammation, leading to more pain and a greater chance of sleep disruption.
To break this cycle and lessen your symptoms, it is important to find effective ways to manage your stress levels. Different approaches will work for different people so experiment to find what works best for you. In the first instance, it can be helpful to identify what is causing you stress and deal with whatever factors you can. Talking the situation through can help, even if it is via video link or on the phone due to social distancing.
Try using different relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga – you can find ‘How To’ videos online even if you can’t go to a physical class right now. Avoid resorting to alcohol or comfort eating as this is likely to make the problem worse.
Keeping on top of your pain by taking prescribed medication and painkillers will help you to manage your symptoms. It is important to exercise, even if it is at home, as this helps to improve joint flexibility and strength and also releases natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins.
During these extraordinary times you might find that limiting how often you watch the news could help to reduce anxiety. Try and find positive things to do that distract you and keep you from worrying, such as reading, jigsaw puzzles or crosswords.
Some people find that making an achievable ‘To-Do’ list at the start of their day, and subsequently ticking off completed jobs, can help structure their time and provide a ‘feel good factor’ of achievement. If you live alone it can be really helpful to have someone – a friend or relative – who you can call if you’re having a bad day.
Versus Arthritis has a very informative website and offers support to people with arthritis on 0300 790 0400.