It’s easy to feel lazy when you have Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Having this degenerative disease without a cure often involves high levels of pain. There are many days when I simply hurt too much to do the activities I want to do. Even on good days when I am able to be active, the pain will start cropping up if I begin to “overdo it.” I use quotation marks because my concept of what constitutes a woman in her thirties “overdoing it” and my body’s concept of overdoing it are two different things. In an effort to avoid overexertion and the pain that follows, I often curtail an activity or don’t embark upon something strenuous in the first place.
RA causes not just pain, but also fatigue
Not only does RA cause pain that curbs my activity level, it also involves fatigue that can be as crippling as the discomfort. Sometimes the fatigue is so heavy and intense that I feel like it is literally holding me down in the chair I’m sitting in or bed or couch I’m lying on. Moving through a day when experiencing that level of fatigue is like trying to swim while wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Every movement requires an inordinate amount of effort.
Perhaps it is because of all the time I’ve spent horizontal due to being grounded by RA that I’ve developed a negative association with rest. I’ve had to take so many unexpected rests due to flares, and each time this happens I’m left feeling behind on the many things I’d hoped to accomplish. So perhaps I’ve come to associate rest with illness. Or maybe my perspective is a result of our go-go-go society that generally values productivity above quality of life. Whatever the reason, I often equate rest with missed opportunities.
The standard recommendations for good general health are also beneficial for RA. These include a healthy diet, moderate exercise, and adequate rest. I do not doubt the benefits of the former items on that list. If I have a green smoothie for breakfast and a kale salad for lunch, I pat myself on the back. If I go for a power walk or attend a yoga class, I congratulate myself for taking good care of my body. Yet, if I take a nap or give my body the nine hours of sleep it craves, I often castigate myself for not getting enough done. I overlook the fact that giving my body what it needs to thrive is indeed being productive.
Bad habits can be very hard to break.
Even when we know something doesn’t serve us well, it’s hard to change behaviors. I’m actively trying to change my pattern of thinking and stop berating myself for taking care of myself via rest. When I catch myself thinking, “Man, I was only going to close my eyes for a few minutes and now I’ve wasted two hours sleeping,” I’m trying to tell myself that I wouldn’t have fallen asleep for an inadvertent two-hour nap had it not been exactly what my body needed. In honoring my body with the sleep it needs, I can sometimes quiet my mixed-up immune system and keep it from going on the rampage. When I want to lie in bed for an hour with a book instead of tackling my to-do list, I’m working to remind myself that allowing my body to rest should be on my to-do list.
While all of our bodies need exercise, including those of us with RA, we also need rest. The fact of the matter is that rest can stave off flares and reduce stress. Over the 17 years since my RA diagnosis, I have come to realize that stress has an enormous impact on my disease activity. Rather than push myself past my limits and drive myself into a flare, I can head some of my symptoms off at the pass by allowing myself to relax, rest, and recharge. It should be a no-brainer to give myself rest when my disease activity is at a manageable level and I can actually enjoy a book, movie, or a nap rather than exert myself until the pain and fatigue are so bad that I am relegated to bed anyway, but am certainly not enjoying myself.
It’s time to be kinder to myself.
Therefore, I’m repeating the following messages to myself:
“I am proud of myself when I honor my body.”
“Rest is as important as good food, water, and exercise.”
“I will recharge my battery long before I shut down.”
“Quality of life is more important than my to-do list.”
“Caring for myself is a necessary component of any long-term accomplishment.”
With this practice comes another realization that I can be oblivious to even though it should be obvious: it can feel really good to lie down. When our joints hurt, even lying in bed can be painful; when we need rest the most it can be the hardest to attain. Of course, there will always be unpredictable flares with no apparent cause. However, when I am having a good day and am able to listen to my body when it needs rest, it can actually feel wonderful to lie down.
When was your last flare?