With the host of frustrating and painful symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), including difficulty performing everyday tasks, from lifting a bag to lifting a baby, it’s no wonder that high stress levels, sleep disturbances, sadness and even depression are associated with the condition.

Unfortunately, high stress levels, and the feelings of anger and frustration that often attend them, can cause you to feel more pain. Why? Psychological tension releases chemicals called catecholamines, which can make you more sensitive to pain.

When you’re feeling stressed and anxious, you often have difficulty sleeping too, which then makes you feel even worse. That’s why it’s so important to do your best to control and reduce such tension.

QUIZ: Are You Feeling Stressed?

Try This

Start a stress journal today. Identify one thing in your life that causes stress that you can avoid today or tomorrow. Keep building on the list. As you identify your stressors, take control of them by choosing to avoid them, alter them or accept them.

One of the first steps in trying to reduce stress is to understand exactly what’s causing it. It may be the loss of your old exercise routine, or not being able to sit at your computer and type, or the fact that going to the grocery store has become an ordeal.

Experts recommend the following stress reducers for people with RA:

  • Make an appointment with a therapist who can help guide you through a successful stress-management program. Calming the nervous system can actually reduce inflammation and help dampen the vicious stress-pain cycle.
  • Start a stress diary to help identify stressful situations. Knowing your stressors is the first step to reducing the degree of stress you feel.
  • Avoid unnecessary stress. Once you know common stressors, learn to avoid stressful people, tasks and situations.
  • Make your to-do list truly doable. Trying to complete tasks you can no longer do will only make you feel worse. You can produce satisfying feelings of accomplishment by tackling tasks appropriate to your abilities.
  • Do your best to accept stressful situations that simply can’t be avoided. Acceptance will make the situations less stressful.
  • Share your feelings. Just talking about stressful situations with someone you trust can be very therapeutic.
  • Be sure to make time for things that you like to do, whether it’s getting together with friends or working in the garden. Do something that you enjoy every day.

The Yoga Solution
Yoga is a powerful tool for people with rheumatoid arthritis. On the one hand, it can help with flexibility and strength; on the other, it can help you relax. Both help reduce pain, stress and feelings of sadness. 

Yoga actually stems the flow of catecholamines released by your adrenal glands and increases the amount of serotonin (a chemical that improves mood) in your brain. While researchers aren’t sure how it works, it’s accepted as fact that yoga can help to bring about these positive changes and, therefore, help you feel less pain, less stressed and more positive. Keep in mind that yoga can be adapted for every individual. In other words, you don’t need to do a pretzel pose to practice yoga. You can even do great yoga in a chair.

Practicing yoga can also very effectively take your mind off pain. In some cases, simply distracting yourself from pain — by doing yoga, listening to music or engaging in another pleasurable activity — can help reduce it. “There’s no question that distraction by music and other activities can reduce pain intensity,” says Steven Krause, PhD, a pain specialist at the Cleveland Clinic.

MORE: Yoga Poses

Coping with Depression
Most people with rheumatoid arthritis experience a certain level of sadness. For some, though, it’s more than sadness; they become depressed. RA symptoms such as pain, stiffness and limited movement aren’t the only reasons: The hallmark of the disease, inflammation, can also negatively affect your mood, by influencing neurotransmitters in the brain.

If you feel empty or hopeless and have lost interest in most or all of the activities that you used to find enjoyable, those are key signs. While lifestyle changes like getting regular exercise (even a short walk a day) can help, it’s important to consult with a doctor to find out if medications may be needed to treat your depression.

— by John Henry Dreyfuss