Excited person watching a football game on TV with small monsters biting at joints.

RA, Pain, Mental Energy... and Football Season!

God, my hands hurt today, so badly. Ugh, and my knees, what the heck is going on with that? It’s not like I did anything crazy yesterday so I don’t really...OH WAIT, IT’S SUNDAY!!!! YES!! That means, to borrow a phrase, seven hours of commercial-free football and my Jets are playing!

Games. Sports. Hobbies. Tasks. Fun. Whatever you call it, these things fall under the heading of distractions, and when you have rheumatoid arthritis or another chronic illness, distractions are important. Well, actually, they are indispensable. As indispensable as Russian dressing on a pastrami sandwich (mustard people don’t tweet me – I don’t wanna hear it). Having something to take your mind away from the constant torment of pain and exhaustion goes hand-in-hand with the medication you take every day.

Rheumatoid arthritis takes a lot from us mentally

Rheumatoid arthritis and chronic illness exact a huge mental price on your psyche. Now, I know it gets talked about less than the plastic surgery that aging actors obviously get (I mean, really? Are we just supposed to ignore that you look like a shiny plastic skin-colored clown?), but it’s something every single one of us has to deal with each and every day.

There’s the fatigue and resulting inability to accomplish things. There’s the pain and it’s constant emotional drain. And, there are the inevitable days of depression that always seem to creep up when you least can afford it. Even someone as chipper and happy-go-lucky as I have days when the questions of “what if” sneak up behind me, and give me a scare worse than that time when I thought I was going to get a parking space right at the front of the concert arena but then didn’t. (Compact cars, grumble, grumble.)

The power of distractions

So, what do we do to keep ourselves from falling into these black holes of anxiety and depression? We use distractions! That brings us back around to the beginning of the article – football!

Football is a ready distraction from RA & chronic illness

Football is, by far, my favorite sports season of the year. I love playing fantasy football. I love reading about football. I even love watching it on TV which, if you know me, seems as unlikely as McDonald's winning a Michelin star.

I just enjoy everything about it and I think one of the main reasons for that is because it provides me with a ready distraction from the painful and exhausting damage from thirty plus years of rheumatoid arthritis and chronic illness. It’s part of the reason that autumn is my favorite season of the year (that and the abatement of the oppressive humidity of the NY summer – it’s like a sauna inside of another, bigger, sauna with a thermostat stuck on broil).

Distractions & hobbies as self-care

Distractions are really a form of self-care. People are always talking about how you have to “take care of yourself,” and not to “forget your own needs.” And for years, I’d just nod and smile and say, "Thanks, I surely will.” Then, I'd go and push myself to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner for eight, or go and build, sand, and paint a fence in the backyard. You know - totally easy things for someone with RA to do!

Of course, by the next day, I’d be paying the price for overdoing it and, sometimes, would even have to blast myself with prednisone to get through (don’t try that at home). It wasn’t until later in my illness that I realized how useful distractions and hobbies were - not only for mental health but for physical wellbeing as well. That’s the year I said, “Hmmm, let me see what this fantasy football is all about,” and the rest is history.

Giving our brains a break

Why do distractions work? Well, there’s the obvious – it prevents you from wallowing in your own self-pity and fears by allowing your brain to take a break. A break from the crushing anxiety of what’s coming next, a break from the worry of not getting things done, and just a break from the pain of living with RA and chronic illness.

Pain requires emotional fuel to deal with and just sitting around letting the pain infiltrate your brain can only make things worse. If you use something like football to distract yourself, the pain can actually lessen.

Why football works as a distraction for me

Now, I’m not saying that watching football is going to make all your aches and pains go away, but it does do several things that help. First, it gives me something to look forward to, especially on days when there’s a danger of me just sitting around in pain and endlessly thinking. Second, it provides a way for me to interact with friends and acquaintances on a weekly basis which is something I think we can all benefit from.

Last, it provides me with a contemporary connection to the world. I know this seems a little abstract, like a painting of a soup can, but it really does serve a purpose. It gives you something current to follow and keep track of, which helps to stave off the sense that the world is passing you by as you sit alone and hurt. I know, I know - it sounds like woo-woo hippie stuff, but it works. I promise.

Find a distraction that you enjoy

So, yeah, this post isn’t my usual fare, but I think it was something worth sharing. I know a lot of you deal with the mental aspect of rheumatoid arthritis and chronic illness and think there’s nothing you can do, but there is.

Whether it’s football or knitting or searching for old ceramic figurines of weird frogs on eBay – you have to find a distraction for when things get bad. As for me, well, I’ll keep watching my Jets which, in retrospect, probably won’t do much to make me happier, at least this season. Talk soon.

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