Five Tips for Better Mental Health with Rheumatoid Arthritis
How do you push back against the sadness, worry, and frustration of living with RA? That’s the first prompt in the 2017 #RABlog Week and today, I’ll share what works for me.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other chronic illnesses aren’t just physical, they affect your mental health, as well. For instance, approximately one third of people with RA have experienced depression, some so severe that they have thought of suicide. Having RA batters at your body, your mind, and your soul as you fight fatigue and pain and the stress of trying to push through it all to live as normal a life as possible. Many of us, even if not officially diagnosed with depression, experience awareness of what we have lost, anger, frustration, sadness, and worries about the future.
I’ve felt all of those, in the distant and recent past both, and likely will again. For most of my life, I was stuck in a really difficult place where everything I did was tinged with sadness. Then that big flare happened and after that a medication that suppressed my RA for the first time ever.it motivated me to try a new way of approaching life with chronic illness and disability. And it worked.
1. Treat your condition
I really can’t emphasize this enough. Do whatever you have to do to pursue remission and effective pain management. Do not take no for an answer, try everything (preferably if it’s safe and legal). It can be really difficult to muster up the hope to try yet another thing if several haven’t worked before, but ask for support from your doctors, your support network, and take the leap. When your RA is suppressed, when your pain is treated, it has a profound impact on your mood and your ability to face the world.
2. Make friends with your body
When your body feels terrible and your life becomes limited because of that, many of us start resenting our physical selves. I came to hate my body so much that I disassociated from it, describing myself as a brain in a jar — I was all personality, no physicality. Then I figured out that becoming friends with my body, partnering in this life with RA pain, fatigue, and everything else that comes with it, made me feel better. Made me respects my body more and become a whole person.
3. Focus on what you can do
Being very aware of what you don’t have and can’t do anymore is completely normal when you have a chronic illness. It also puts you on the fast track to depression. Paying attention to what you can’t do anymore and that what you no longer have because of chronic illness makes you sad, makes you resent your body for betraying you, your self-esteem goes in the toilet, and so on. Looking instead on what you still have and what you can still do, even if less than B.C. (Before Chronic illness) starts you on the path to happiness.
4. Choose joy
The other day, someone asked me to list the challenges in my life that were related to chronic illness. For a moment, I couldn’t remember. For the last 12 years, I have focused not just on looking at what I have, looking at what I can do, but actively choosing joy. It has created a habit of happiness that often makes it difficult to remember the things I don’t like. This is not to say that there aren’t disappointments and sadness, just that I turn away from it and work very hard at seeking the light. Changing my focus and making deliberate and conscious choices towards the positive has changed my life and made me a much happier person.
5. Find support
None of this has come easy. It has been an evolution that has taken years and a lot of work. As well is help. My family and friends have circled the wagons, been there when I need to vent or worry, as well as helped me laugh during some serious challenges. My doctors have helped me with the medication I need to find my sense of humour when RA and pain try to take control. And they have also helped me find counselling when our best efforts weren’t enough. There is no shame in seeking help for your mental health — it is an essential part of creating quality of life. If you can’t find a counsellor (or can’t afford one), there are tools that can help you, such as, for instance, The Arthritis Society’s online course Arthritis and Mental Health and Well-Being.
I often say that every diagnosis of RA — as well as any other chronic illness — should come not just with a prescription for medication, but also with a referral to a social worker or psychologist. Getting a diagnosis of a chronic condition is a profoundly distressing event and changes your life. Adapting and finding your way back to living well isn’t just about your physical health, but your emotional health, as well.
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