Louise Chang, MD
Whether it’s a problem at work, relationship troubles, or just dealing with traffic, we all deal with stress in our lives. But ongoing stress can take a toll on your health. It can also make any health condition that you have feel worse, including arthritis.
When your body is under stress, it releases chemicals, such as cortisol. These are the same chemicals that can trigger inflammation and pain. So you might be more likely to have arthritis flare-ups when you’re feeling stress.
What’s more, stress can increase your perception of pain. "Stress can leave you feeling less able to handle your pain and more easily overwhelmed by it," says Sharon Kolasinski, MD, a rheumatologist and professor of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
And, having a chronic illness, such as arthritis, can add to your stress level. "Chronic pain is a stressor in itself," says Kolasinski. "But it can be even more stressful when the pain limits your mobility or activities."
Although you might not be able to avoid stress completely, you don’t have to let it rule your life. There are many ways to help manage stress. The key is finding the ones that work best for you. This article offers seven stress management suggestions and ideas on how to get started.
Exercise is a great stress reducer. It releases chemicals in your brain that help you feel good and releases built-up tension. Exercise is also a great way to reduce arthritis pain. "When you don’t exercise, it can actually increase pain and stiffness and lead to less mobility," says Kolasinski. "Starting an exercise program isn’t always easy, but it’s definitely worth the effort."
One of the easiest ways to get started is to find an activity that you enjoy.
"It’s really important to find something that works for you," says Alveta Haynes of Boston. Despite having arthritis for many years and a total knee replacement in 2007, Haynes has always been active. "I’ve found the best way to feel good and keep my stress level low is to keep moving," she says. Haynes plays tennis regularly and loves to walk in the park near her home, but finds other activities to enjoy in the winter, when walking outdoors isn’t an option. "Don’t be afraid to try something new when you can’t do your regular exercise," she says. "There are lots of options out there -- just be sure you do something."
Another way to get exercise is to join a program for people with arthritis. "The Arthritis Foundation offers several types of group exercise and walking programs designed especially for those with arthritis," says Judith Levine, chief public health officer for the Arthritis Foundation’s New England Region. These programs are gentle and have been proven safe and effective. "Another advantage to these programs is that they often turn into informal support groups," says Levine. "For many people, it’s nice to be in a group with others who know what you’re going though." You can find an arthritis exercise group in your area by visiting the "Life Improvement Series" section of the Arthritis Foundation’s web site at www.arthritis.org.
When you think of meditation you may imagine sitting in the lotus position on a cushion while repeating one word or phrase over and over. If this doesn’t appeal to you, don’t worry. Meditation comes in many forms -- you can meditate while walking, exercising, or taking a shower. "Meditation can be extraordinarily helpful for those with osteoarthritis," says Kolasinski. "It can help reduce stress and anxiety, and also help people learn to cope better with their pain."
Meditation is the act of clearing your mind to get in touch with what’s happening in your body. You can do this by focusing your attention on an object, such as a candle flame or a stone in your garden. Or, for a more active meditation, focus on the rhythm of your feet as you walk or the feeling of water spraying your body in the shower. If your thoughts drift back to your to-do list, that’s fine -- just gently bring your focus back. It may take some patience and practice, but many people find that a few minutes of meditation a day can do wonders to help relieve stress. As you become more comfortable with meditation, you can practice for longer periods of time.
If you need help getting started, you can find many books, DVDs, and CDs about meditation in your local bookstore or library. Look for an approach that appeals to you.
One simple way to stop stress and feel more relaxed wherever you are is to take a few deep breaths. You can practice deep breathing while sitting, standing, or lying down. Here’s how:
You can use this exercise whenever you’re feeling stressed to help you slow down and relax.
Many people use alternative therapies, such as hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery training to help manage stress. They are techniques you can learn from a practitioner, books, or CDs, and then practice yourself. "These methods help teach you to carry a lower level of stress around," says Edward Charlesworth, PhD, author of Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness. "We all run into stressors throughout the day, but these therapies can help you learn how to manage your stress more effectively and make life more enjoyable."
In addition, acupuncture and massage therapy can also be helpful for reducing stress -- and can also help ease the pain of arthritis.
We always seem to find time for the things we have to do. But it’s just as important to make time in your schedule for activities you like, such as reading, having coffee with a friend, seeing a movie, or listening to music. Not only will this help reduce your stress level, but it may also help you forget about your arthritis pain.
Having friends feels good -- and it’s good for your health too. "Most adults live with some type of pain, but studies show that the lonelier we are, the more likely we are to feel our pain," says Nortin Hadler, MD, MACP, MACR, FACOEM. Hadler is a professor of medicine and attending rheumatologist at the University of North Carolina. "One of the best ways to reduce stress and pain is to join a group of peers in an activity that you enjoy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a water aerobics class or a book group, the most important piece is getting out there and connecting with others."
Haynes says her church plays a big role in her social life. "I think it’s really important to be socially connected, so I try to get involved in church activities as much as I can. Being around other people is a great way to relieve stress and it just makes me feel good," she says.
You can find ways to connect by looking for groups in your community that share your interests, whether it’s bird watching, tennis, or bridge. Or consider volunteering or joining a support group.
If you’re having a hard time managing your stress, it might be time to ask for help. Your doctor may be able to suggest other ways to control your stress. Or he or she might suggest talking with a therapist or other mental health professional.
SOURCES:Sharon Kolasinski, MD, professor of clinical medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Department of Health and Human Services.Alveta Haynes, arthritis patient, Boston.Judith Levine, Chief Public Health Officer for the Arthritis Foundation’s New England Region, Newton, Mass.Nortin Hadler, MD, MACP, MACR, FACOEM, professor of medicine and attending rheumatologist at the University of North Carolina.
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