Those who have watched the tv show Grey’s Anatomy are likely familiar with the phrase “dance it out.” When the stress of being a surgeon in a hospital where calamity and scandal are the norm, the characters often take to their living room or bedroom floors to boogie their blues away.
This is not what I mean by “dancing it out.” (Although the fun and exercise of dancing can indeed be excellent stress relief, in addition to being an incredibly effective tactic for getting my family back to a happy place if my husband, kids and I are having a cranky moment). No, when I say “dance it out,” I’m referring to the morning stiffness and fatigue that plague those of us living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
“Dancing it out”, not just a fantasy scenario?
I know that some people’s reaction will be, “I wish I could ‘dance it out’ but my body is in way too much pain for that.” My response is that I hear you, as my body is often in too much pain to dance as well. However, before you dismiss this suggestion as a fantasy scenario, read on.
My least favorite time of day is its start. While I would love to be one of those “top of the morning” early bird types, waking up is often painful, both literally and figuratively. One of the hallmarks of this disease is morning stiffness, in which our joints, having been relatively still during the night, are more swollen and stiff than at other times of the day when we are more active. Morning stiffness is one of those “RA catch-22s”: morning stiffness makes it hard to move, but movement is what makes morning stiffness dissipate. This symptom is not going to go away until our bodies are moving, but morning stiffness makes one want to stay in bed.
In addition to morning stiffness, the fatigue caused by rheumatoid arthritis can feel like an anchor weighing one down to the mattress. Sometimes when I try to explain that I’m fatigued others will say something along the lines of, “Yeah, I’m really tired too because I stayed up late last night.” I’ve also stayed up late at night, and that exhaustion is completely different than the fatigue of RA. For a person who has never experienced fatigue caused by a chronic health condition, my best comparison would be the heaviness they may have felt while having the flu or recuperating from surgery. However, even that’s not the same, as I’ve typically felt groggy in those circumstances, whereas with RA fatigue I feel flat, numb, and frankly, stupid. Thoughts come slower, my body feels weighted down, each movement feels like I’m pushing against the density of water rather than air, and all I want to do is lie down. No amount of sleep makes fatigue go away, it only makes it less excruciating.
Did I mention RA makes it hard to get out of bed?
So what is a person faced with fatigue and morning stiffness as well as responsibilities such a work, family, housework, and errands to do? Well, this RA Warrior has taken to dancing.
On a bad day, “dancing” may be nothing more than cranking up some energetic music while standing in the steam of a hot shower, waiting for my joints to loosen. On a so-so day “dancing” can mean bouncing around a bit as I make coffee to the beat of a lively song. And, on those sought-after good days that can sometimes feel like the holy grail of RA, dancing can actually mean having a song-length solo dance in the middle of my bedroom floor.
Music for stiff mornings
I have a “Morning” playlist I started a few years ago in an effort to blast through the morning haze of stiffness and fatigue with music. While some may prefer a more gentle entrance into the day, gentle will mean I can’t make it to work on time, as I need the charge of auditory stimulation as much as I need a cup of strong coffee each morning. The songs on my playlist all serve one function: to get me moving. To start each day I pick up my phone, tell Siri to “shuffle ‘Morning’ playlist,” and then gradually increase the volume as I increase my movement. I may start with some ankle and wrist rolls while still in bed, followed by straightening and bending my knees several times. Then when I roll out of bed I add some hip circles and easy stretches. The beat of the music encourages both my body and my mind to shake off slumber and start moving.
A couple months ago I had friends over, and not wanting to figure out what music to play, I opted to have my “Morning” playlist (which has grown over the three years since I created it from about 10 songs to more than 100) playing on a speaker. A friend said, “I like this mix. What is it?” When I told her it was the “Morning” playlist I listen to every day as dawn breaks, she said, “This is what you listen to in the morning?!” Perhaps it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, or coffee rather, for the start of the day, but not everyone is contending with the symptoms I face each morning.
The only way to live well in spite of this disease is to pull out every tool in the toolbox, figure out which ones work for us, and then keep using them. For me, moving to fast, upbeat music has become one of those tools. And on those glorious good days when I am actually able to really dance to a song before heading out the door, it feels like a celebration of life, movement, and hope.