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Puzzling Over Stress Relief

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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Linda
    2 years ago

    Hi, Tamara. I always look forward to and connect with your articles. I too have a difficult time holding a physical book and love reading. I find my iPad to really help in that area. I can prop it up on my lap on a pillow (in its case) and just tap to turn the pages. There’s also a coloring app I really like so I can tap to color and it doesn’t hurt my hands. To be sure I don’t have too much blue light exposure because that contributes to my insomnia I have special glasses that filter out blue light (on amazon). We need lots of tools to manage our RD and everything helps a little, right? Smiles, Linda

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    2 years ago

    Hi Linda, Thanks so much for these tips! I also try to avoid too much blue light, especially at bedtime, so that is a helpful tip about the glasses. Thanks for sharing your suggestions! Have a wonderful day, Tamara

  • Tich
    2 years ago

    Nice timing Tamara for a piece on stress relief. We are trying to piece our lives back together after Harvey ruined our home and cars. Living on the edge of survival seems to be a new normal in America. When I left the the workforce in 2014, I was hopeful that lowering my stress level would help my condition, and I know it did. But stress comes from many sources. Disasters are really bad; I can say now I had no clue how bad. But so can family distress over everything imaginable. Money certainly is a common stress riser. But now it seems like all these have come into play for me. And I just don’t have time to deal with my RA. So it comes to a crescendo and I find myself in Flare City, back on prednisone at all time high levels trying to tame my scleritis. Glaucoma and blood pressure have also peaked.l, and those meds are very unpleasant.and incompatible with digging my life out of a mud pit. I can’t say enough about the good people who have taken us in and those who are lending us car or their own time to get debris out of our home. But we are so tired of living out of suitcases, and we don’t have a timetable for our repairs. But we do get news occasionally, and we seem to have an endless supply of tears for those in distress; whether it be here in Houston or in Puerto Rico or Las Vegas or Yemen. There is no redeeming feature to all this misery. We get no sense of relief that it could have been worse. We just do what we can to help each other survive another day with or without RA and all the ‘joy’ it brings.Maybe my scleritis will improve. Maybe FEMA will send another check. Maybe my LTD will be approved. Maybe we can go home … tomorrow.

  • Tamara Haag moderator author
    2 years ago

    Hi Tich,

    I’m so sorry you have so many stressors piled up so high. RA and natural disasters are both stressful enough independently; I can’t imagine what it’s like to experience them together. I have family in Houston dealing with some of the issues you are dealing with, but not with the chronic health issues.

    I can certainly see how Harvey evacuated you to Flare City and now you’re stuck there. I can only imagine how my body would respond to what you’re going through. Thank you for sharing your story and your perspective. It sounds like you’re handling this the best that a person could, one day at a time.

    Please know that we are here any time you need to vent or need an empathetic ear. I hope that these current hardships are resolved as quickly as possible, but from what I understand it will be months and years before the consequences of Harvey aren’t keenly felt by those of you living in that area. I feel for you, truly.

    Wishing you and yours all the best,

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