Surprising Triggers

Periodically, I encounter surprising triggers—senses that give me a jolt of anxiety and remind me of negative experiences related to my rheumatoid arthritis. When you live with RA, you live with moments that are painful and uncomfortable, that must be endured in the quest for treatment and relief. I have found that as these experiences have been accumulated over nearly four decades, that certain ones become triggers of memory and anxiety.

The RA-related smells, images, and feelings causing anxiety

Certain smells, images, and feelings bring up these memories. Sometimes they make me feel anxious, sometimes sad. But I breathe through the moment and move forward. I know the present is different than the past, but I acknowledge and respect the challenges I lived through.

  • The scent of alcohol swabs. I can’t pinpoint when it started happening, but the scent of alcohol swabs gives me the jitters. Since a young age, I went frequently for blood draws to measure my inflammation. I remember sitting in the high chair with the fold down table arm, waiting patiently for my turn with the needle. The room was always filled with that scent and I always remember anxiety about whether they would be able to get the vein (and even better: do it in one stick). Blood draws have never been easy for me and have only gotten more difficult. But every time I get a whiff of that alcohol I can feel the anxiety bubble in my tummy.
  • The sight of needles. I am not afraid of needles. I know what they can do and don’t fear them, even though I am familiar with the pain. But the sight of needles always makes me think of blood draws and the difficulty even the best technicians have in tapping my veins. I may not be afraid of needles, but I definitely do not like the look of them!
  • Entering a medical facility. There must be some universal cleaning solution used by medical facilities because every time I enter one it is the same scent that gives me the jitters. They are always overly cold as well, such that I want to leave my coat on (or wish that I brought one!). To me, the experience of sensations in these places cause discomfort and are rarely about soothing or making patients feel more relaxed. For good reasons, they are sterile and hard (easy to clean) places. After all the examinations and procedures I’ve endured, I just always feel ill-at-ease when entering a medical facility.
  • Meeting a new physical therapist. Physical therapy has done so much for me over the years to help maintain my health and keep as many abilities as possible despite an aggressive case of RA. But don’t get me wrong, they can scare the bejeezus out of me! My experience with PT has often been a pain. It is a part of the process, whether I’m just working hard at my exercises or the therapist is doing a range of motion or massage that hits just the right painful spot. The pain leads to gain, but I definitely do not enjoy the process! So when I meet a new therapist I get anxious about how it will go. Thankfully, I’ve had really good therapists who have helped me along the way.

As a child, I used to really hate Wednesdays. This was because I had weekly blood tests and that was the day designated to go. For a long time, the hatred of midweek lingered even after the weekly tests stopped. I couldn’t figure out why I felt such anxiety on Wednesdays, but then it dawned on me that the actual day had become a trigger. After I realized it, I could face my fear and it eventually faded.

I imagine that others with RA have collected their own triggers. While it’s uncomfortable, I think it’s important to recognize and reflect on them, to treat yourself kindly during these moments.

What triggers have you developed with your RA and how do you manage them?

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