Puzzling Over Stress Relief
In the 17 years since my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), I’ve been amazed at what a huge role stress plays in my disease activity. When I decided to attempt pregnancy, I resigned from an incredibly stressful job in order to go off of my medications. I was astounded to find that my disease activity off drugs and off the stressful job was lower than it was while on meds while maintaining a high stress level.
Since then I’ve continually tweaked my life’s “game plan” in an attempt to keep stress as low as possible while still having a family, an interesting career, a social life, and enough money in the bank. That’s no small feat, especially when contending with chronic illness, and I often find myself inhaling deeply in an effort to combat the stress of trying to balance the needs of my kids, my job, and my self care.
Getting Some Me-Time
One way I try to lower stress is taking some “me time.” However, when I’m achy this can be easier said than done. For instance, I love to lose myself in a good book. Reading is one of my favorite pastimes, and I feel more balanced when I’ve temporarily abandoned the cares of my own world in order to be consumed in the events of fictional characters. Yet, holding a book, even one propped up on pillows, can sometimes be more than I can manage for an extended period of time. Indeed, even when holding a book isn’t immediately painful, lying still while holding an object for an hour can lead to muscle tension, which in turn can increase joint pain. Furthermore, I have young children, so finding quiet time to read can be a challenge.
Art to the rescue
In an effort to decompress while spending time with my kids, I’ve tried coloring. Adult coloring books have become all the rage as a way to relax, and I do find I can zone out while choosing hues and bringing a black and white page to multicolor life. Unfortunately, I find coloring, even when using very light pressure on my colored pencil, is too hard on my fingers and wrist to do for more than a few minutes. At times I’ve pushed through the discomfort in my hand in an effort to relax my mind, but I’ve paid for it the next day with an activity hangover in the form of extra puffy and painful fingers.
Jigsaw Puzzles: another way of “losing yourself”
Therefore, I’ve recently taken up a great stress reliever that is easy on my joints that I can do with my kids: jigsaw puzzles. When they were toddlers, my children and I put together plenty of puzzles. However, with 100 or fewer pieces, these did not engage my mind the way that working on larger puzzles does. Over a recent holiday I decided it would be fun for our family to work on a puzzle, and I was pleasantly surprised at how absorbing finding edge pieces, grouping colors and patterns, and searching for a specific shape can be. When I work on a puzzle, I let go of the worries on my mind, zoning out of my “busy brain” for a while.
While sitting in one position can be hard on my body, I can shift my sitting position to work on a puzzle far more than I can to work on a computer. In order to provide further flexibility in positioning myself, I got a board that I place on top of the table and place the puzzle pieces on that. This allows me to move the entire puzzle-in-progress from the dining room to the living room if I want to make the switch from sitting in a chair to sitting on the couch. (It’s also very helpful if I need to quickly clear the dining room table without taking apart the puzzle.)
Puzzle pieces aren’t heavy, like books are, and while requiring some dexterity while placing them, they don’t require the application of pressure that coloring does. If I’m in a full-on flare, I still don’t want to sit at a table over a jigsaw puzzle, but for mid-level pain it’s a fairly comfortable activity. In addition, it’s one that can be abandoned for days or weeks at a time and then easily restarted, unlike so many other activities.
Lastly, I find that working on a puzzle provides a sense of order that is sorely lacking while living with an unpredictable chronic condition like RA. Never knowing when the next flare will hit, which joints will hurt on any given day, how swollen or fatigued I’ll be, and how all these factors will impact the planned activities on my calendar, I often feel like I don’t have adequate control over my body or my schedule. Therefore, the process of taking a chaotic pile of cardboard pieces and slowly and deliberately finding they each have a place and together create something ordered and complete feels therapeutic. While I often can’t make sense of this puzzling disease, and I feel I’m always trying to pick up the pieces of my life after RA strikes, at least I can relieve some of the stress of this disease by putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.