How Not to Let Your Emotions Ruin Your Day
I wake up and I’m afraid to move because I know it’s going to hurt. I slowly take a peek at my elbows and knees- just as I thought, they are badly swollen. “Not again,” I think, and begin to mentally run through all the things I had planned on doing that day. I cross off everything except the activities I absolutely have to do. The first to go are always the fun things- walking my dog, a bike ride I had planned, time with friends.
And then the hard emotions start.
“What did I do to cause this flare-up?”
“Is a bad one starting?”
“Is my medication not working anymore?”
“ Will this ever let up?”
“Why does this have to keep happening; why can’t I ever feel better?”
As soon as I have these thoughts, emotions follow- sadness, frustration, anxiety, hopelessness, and my worry continues.
Can you see a vicious cycle starting? Pain-worry-negative emotions-more pain- more worry- and on and on.
I’d like to tell you that after 40+ years of living with rheumatoid arthritis I have moved past this unhelpful cycle. The truth is, I haven’t. What I have learned to do, however, is to move through them, and past them, a lot quicker.
I’ve heard it stated that emotions are the least reliable gauges of truth.
It struck me at the time because this statement was so perceptive and it made me want to explore the idea more. What I discovered is neuroscience has found that emotions run their gamut for a mere 90 seconds unless we keep them going. Emotions are always reactions, never the driver, and by giving them too much weight we do nothing but keep feeling them. Emotions limit your ability to think critically. When you live with RA, learning how to handle the hard emotions that inevitably come up is paramount in living well with the disease.
One reason for this is physiological. When you feel pain, your emotional brain is stimulated as part of the pain response. Another part of the brain is also stimulated, called the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of “executive functions,” like decision-making, planning, and expectations for the future. The reason for this actually makes evolutionary sense- by attaching a negative emotion to a painful experience we will be much less likely to do the thing that caused the pain again. If we can learn from our mistakes, and figure out ways to avoid the pain in the future, we will be more likely to survive. However, chronic pain, pain that lasts longer than six months, can teach the brain to perpetuate negative emotions; by keeping these negative emotions alive through pain, we stay in an unhelpful feedback loop. The only way stop this from happening is to consciously work to shift your emotions.
“This too shall pass,” is something I tell myself a lot.
In fact, I have a few mantras that I keep handy in order to maintain perspective and to move out of hard emotions more quickly. The absolute best thing I’ve ever learned to do to positively impact my emotional health is to learn to change perspective. I do this in a myriad of ways, depending on my level of pain, the depth of my emotional angst, and my situation in life (i.e. how much money is in my bank account!). At times I draw from my tool-kit of past training in health psychology. I use cognitive-behavioral techniques, mindfulness, visualization, meditation, or biofeedback. When I don’t have the ability to be so structured in my response, a change of place changes my perspective or a conversation with one of my trusted confidants.
But the best way to learn to move more quickly through strong suffering is by learning to slightly shift your thinking whenever you feel stress or anxiety so that when you need to get out of a negative emotional rut it won’t be so hard. I find that by practicing with small issues encountered on a regular basis that have nothing to do with disease I can react in a healthier way with the harder problems that JRA brings. If I’m delayed at the airport, I remind myself that I’m lucky to be living in the age of air travel. If I start to feel anxiety about doing my taxes I remind myself that the reality is that in a few weeks it will all be over. By practicing a lot, when life starts to get scary because of my disease, I’m better able to handle this in a more resilient and healthy way.
“It’s good to realize how dangerous life is. Sometimes let it scare you, it will heighten your sense of gratitude and preciousness. Impermanence can teach you a lot about how to cheer up.”
– Pema Chodron
Living with a disease like rheumatoid arthritis is enough to scare even the most courageous souls.
Our reality is a tough one and there is no way around that. We are regularly faced with serious health issues and have to make hard decisions regarding how to treat these issues. Often, the decisions we have to make seem like lose-lose ones. Negative emotions are another by-product of this irascible illness, which adds to our already over-burdened disease load. But, with pain comes strength. We have the strength to meet our emotions head-on and we can gain the skills to move through them quickly. I believe that not only is this a prudent thing to do, it is necessary in order to live well with rheumatoid arthritis.