Findings from a recent study indicate that rheumatoid arthritis causes mood disorders. While mood shifts come as no surprise because we are battling pain, limitations, and sleep deprivation, it is a reminder to get our “mental health check-up” as part of our care.
According to the study, 23% of patients with RA experienced cognitive dysfunction with 16% related to depression. A third of patients had sleep-related issues. The lead researcher suggested that mental health issues stem from grappling with stress and chronic pain, with a recommendation that mental health evaluations should be a regular practice in caring for RA patients.
In my opinion, taking care of my mental health has been crucial for managing my RA. As a child, this was a huge issue because I was not equipped to handle such a huge issue. In retrospect, I wish that my doctor had offered mental health assessments and support to help me mature with my disease. A recent study agrees that RA patients want psychological support, but are usually not asked by their doctor.
I was fortunate that I had a terrific support system in my family. But it was also incredibly helpful in my later high school years to see a counselor and talk about my experience with rheumatoid arthritis, resulting disabilities, and impact on my life. These sessions helped me to understand how RA altered not only my childhood but entire life, how I was and could continue to adapt, and negotiate future emotional challenges.
RA has fundamentally changed how I think and approach life. I know for a fact that when I am achy, in more pain or feeling especially stiff, that it alters my thinking. On these days I have to practice patience and slow myself down so that I don’t make hasty decisions or misunderstand a situation. I remember one day a number of years ago that I purchased some silly item because a salesperson called during a flare-up day! I learned not to answer calls from strangers on bad RA days, because after I was feeling better I realized my mistake and had to cancel the order!
For me, it’s not just my thinking, but my entire attitude can be influenced by RA—depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, exhaustion. As many of you know, RA is an emotional rollercoaster! It’s possible to get caught on a wild ride and feel out of control!
Periodically, I seek to rebalance with the help of a psychologist. But there are other ways, such as taking time out for yourself, seeking support (or laughs) from friends and family, going on a relaxing vacation, or other mental-health supportive activities.
One thing I like about my current rheumatologist is that he always asks how I am, not just meaning my joints and RA symptoms, but my mental and emotional health. He asks about my work, my family, my fun. These things should be a part of the care conversation because they contribute to our health. If I can manage my RA, along with my mental health, then I am in a better place for the long term.
RA and mental health are inextricably entwined. (Another study indicates that psychological symptoms affects RA disease activity.) While the disease attacks our joints, it also challenges our minds to maintain a positive outlook, enjoy our lives, and not lose ourselves in the chaos caused by the illness.
Take the time to take care of your mind, and not just your body. Bring up mental health concerns with your doctor and seek out supports, such as therapy and medication. We are on a challenging journey and need to bolster ourselves along the way.
Sometimes I worry too much about asking for mental or emotional support, but as research verifies, it is an important part of caring for RA.