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RA and Depression

I’ve had depression since I was 14. It’s something that has colored every aspect of my life and how I perceive the world around me. So has RA, even though I have only been officially diagnosed since October 2018. The two diseases go hand in hand; they feed into and contribute to each other. As time tumbles forward, I have picked up on the cyclical nature between the two and want to explore that nature in detail.

Exploring depression and chronic disease

First and foremost, receiving an RA diagnosis is life-changing. In my own experience, the diagnosis was charged with negative emotions: it was life-shattering. I cradled the life I had previously lived in my hands like a white-blue porcelain bowl; the diagnosis pushed that bowl through my hands, shattering into a million pieces on the cold, sterile floor. Along with all the physical symptoms of RA —the most pernicious being fatigue and unrelenting joint pain— I had to begin cultivating and figuring out this new life. My depression entered my life in the same manner as a shadow swallows the remnants of sunshine when a strong thunderstorm passes through. I was thrust into a maelstrom of confusion and panic, worry and dread, fear and loathing. I had no idea what to do.

Coming to terms with my RA diagnosis

After first being diagnosed, I would wake up in the morning and sit at the edge of my bed, my head falling heavily into my hands. I would look down and think, “this is not happening to me, there’s no way I have rheumatoid arthritis.” But as I shuffled around my apartment and turned over the Rx bottles, the boxes of Humira in my fridge, the wrist splints littering my vanity, I recognized that this is my reality, now. That, although I am incredibly privileged and thankful to have medications that help me, RA will never go away, as much as I want it to.

Managing the mental and physical symptoms of depression

But, it’s not enough that RA can worsen depression; depression can conversely affect RA. Any mental illness can cause physical pain, including headaches, fatigue, muscle pain, and more, which only complicates and compounds the pain of RA. In addition, depression can exacerbate pre-existing feelings of dread, anxiety, and fear about having RA: “Will I have another flare soon? How much are my medications going to affect my health in the long run? What am I going to do if I’m always feeling pain throughout the rest of my life? Why is my life so different now?”

Focusing on what I can do

Because these questions have now entered my life, I’ve been trying to figure out ways to answer them. What has worked for me is focusing on things that I can do. After working a full day, if I find myself asking “why can’t I study more today?”, then I say to myself “my fatigue limits me, and I’m proud to have completed a full day’s worth of work.” After writing all weekend, if I find myself complaining that “I should have made time to see my friends,” I remind myself that it is impractical to believe that I can accomplish everything, especially now with RA.

In all honesty, having depression and RA has forced me to make taking care of myself a priority, something I had never been able to do before. More importantly, realizing this has allowed me to mitigate the pain and tension I feel. I’m slowly learning that listening to my body is the only way I will be able to make sense of this life.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips moderator
    4 weeks ago

    I find that depression and pain go hand in hand. So it is no surprise that it goes both ways. When i have been the worst off, I was usually the most depressed and when I feel good, I am happy I feel less pain.

    Moral of the story, see my therapist, take my meds and ride my bike. These things make Rick a happier man.

  • katestulberg
    4 weeks ago

    I have mild depression and RA too. Luckily I live by the beach and I go for walks there and it seems to make me feel better. But sometimes I wake up and my feet and knees and hands hurt and I can’t believe this is happening to me. I want to feel joyous again as I did when I was younger and the best remedy has been to go for walks or go swimming. Take care

  • David Advent moderator author
    3 weeks ago

    Hi @katestulberg, thank you for your comment. I live close to the beach too, and as you mention, both the beach and walking helps a lot, both physically and mentally. I’m interested in beginning swimming again; I’m glad to hear it works for you!

    Wishing you the best,

    David (RheumatoidArthritis.net Team Member)

  • Cynthia Ventura moderator
    4 weeks ago

    What you shared David @mda1847 is so true. Living with RA is always challenging. It is a learning experience where we often feel blindfolded because everyone’s unknown is unique. Positive affirmations and taking control of the situation are excellent ways of thriving despite RA difficulties.

    I believe a dx of RA triggers the Kubler-Ross/Kessler five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Your acceptance of many of the challenges since your dx is inspiring to me, those newly diagnosed and those still struggling to do so.

    I know in my 20+ years of RA I have bounced back and forth before finally accepting the disease. It is not a one way street. New symptoms and prolonged flares land me back in-between stages again but I recover and land on acceptance again fairly quickly by taking back my control.

    There is a new stage introduced into the equation by Dr. Kessler, one of, “finding meaning.” I believe, “finding meaning” for the changes in our lives is a very important part of living with chronic illness. Basically, because it cements our acceptance of the many changes we have survived and obliges us to think positively and constructively about our lives despite RA.

    As always David, I’m enriched by reading your post and experiencing a window into your RA journey. Thank you.

  • David Advent moderator author
    3 weeks ago

    Hi @cynthiav, thank you for your comments, I really appreciate them. And I’m glad that you enjoyed reading this article!

    Your comment on the shifting acceptance of RA rings so clearly with me. I’m not really sure if true acceptance exists for RA, anymore. And as you mention, working toward acceptance involves “finding meaning” in whatever form that meaning takes.

    Thank you, again, and I wish you the best,

    David (RheumatoidArthritis.net Team Member)

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