A person with hands raised in the air slamming into a wall with a symbol representing a flare on is.

Is It Stress?

I’ve always heard that stress is bad for rheumatoid arthritis, but I’ve never been sure what that meant for me and my condition. Developing juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age two is a puzzle because I doubt it was stress-induced. As a child growing up, I had the normal stressors, plus that of a debilitating disease. Did stress contribute to my aggressive illness?

Likely, I’ll never know the answer. I’m not sure how stress impacted my RA as I grew, went to college, established my life, married my husband, and so forth. I know that I have experienced stress (and continue to! It’s a fact of living!), but I also am really unsure of what it may have done to my body over the years.

Did stress make my RA symptoms worse?

Since last fall I have been taking a new biologic and have been generally feeling better. Even more surprising: for the first time in my life I have a normal inflammation marker (C-reactive protein or CRP test). And yet this spring I have been feeling crummy. I’m tired (well, that’s just about always). I’m achy and particular joints have been throbbing. And I am stiff.

Why am I feeling worse?

I’ve been asking myself why. I’m on a medication that’s working, yet I’ve been having some really bad days. With some deep inward searching, I have come to believe that at least part of my problem is stress.

When I get home, I can feel the tense feeling in my shoulders hiking them almost to my ears. I realize that I’m clenching leg muscles and twitching my feet. My neck is creaking in brand new ways. Pains shoot up my forearms.

My doctor told me that the new biologic would not cure the damage from my disease. I understand this. I have many years of deformed joints, wilted muscles, and twisted soft tissues. I live with disabilities and know that chronic pain and RA are my companions for life. For me, the medication is not a cure, but instead a pause button. We hope to slow activity down and prevent new damage. So, I have a lot to already cope with as far as RA effects.

But I am realizing that stress and worry pile onto my joints like an elephant onto an old, rickety bridge. It’s not going to handle that pressure well!

Needing to better manage stress

Practicing meditation more regularly

I finally accepted that I needed to do more about managing stress and seeking relief when I did a little experiment. I meditated a couple days in a row and felt almost immediately better. It’s a practice I’m not great at practicing! But I do know that it is good for me and I need to be more regular about meditating. It helps my mind to stop running constantly, making to-do lists or scolding myself for various foibles. It helps me to feel and breathe through joint pain and discomfort. It helps me to calm my muscle tension and let it go.

Taking breaks

I also know that I need to take some breaks during my day to relieve stress. I find it helpful to take a moment to breathe and stretch. It’s also good for me to listen to music that I enjoy and feel like I can give my mind a break from concentrating.

Maybe I am becoming more susceptible to stress as I age. But I don’t think so. I think I am just becoming a little bit more aware of the impact stress has on my body. I know it’s not just because I have RA, but that the disease likely makes me more sensitive to the negative impacts. In any case, I need to continue my stress management practices and would love feedback on what others do to handle and calm their stress.

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