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Arthritis and Emotions

Having a chronic disease like arthritis can spur an array of feelings.

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Emotions that come along with the pain, fatigue and other physical symptoms of arthritis can be surprising and even overwhelming. You may be resilient and take the challenges of managing a chronic disease in stride. Or, you may be a more emotional person, with a variety of feelings coming at you every day. Most people with arthritis experience an ebb and flow of control and anxiety. These feelings are natural and understandable. Your life stage, self-image, relationships, responsibilities, economic security and disease status will affect your emotions as you manage your disease.

The Emotional Gamut

“The ways we react to crisis are highly individual and varied. You may experience a range of many – sometimes contradictory – emotions simultaneously,” says Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, professor of psychology and counseling at the College of New Rochelle in New York.

Some emotions you may encounter during your journey living with arthritis include:

  • Shock: You feel surprised at receiving a diagnosis of a chronic disease.
  • Relief: You feel somewhat eased that you have an explanation for those mysterious symptoms.
  • Confusion: You are unsure what the diagnosis means. What will the future hold? What do you have to do next?
  • Overwhelm: There’s too much to think about and deal with! Doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, medicine, work, family.
  • Anger: You’re mad because aspects of your life have changed. You may feel angry at yourself for being ill, at others for not “fixing” it or giving you more support, or at a higher power for “letting this happen to you”.
  • Frustration: You feel frustrated because of your persistent pain, reduced abilities and loss of control over life. 
  • Anxiety and fear: You may be scared for the present and for what arthritis may bring in the future. This can be especially true if you’ve known someone who had severe arthritis.
  • Loss: You may feel a sense of loss over the life you planned, or loss for things you can’t do anymore.
  • Isolation: You may feel isolated and detached from your family, friends and community when you can’t participate in the same way you used to.
  • Helplessness: You may feel helpless if you have to start relying on others to do things you used to do on your own.
  • Hopelessness:  When your pain is bad and you have trouble doing things you need to do, your future may feel hopeless.
  • Guilt. You may feel bad if you can’t “pull your weight” around the house or on the job due to pain and fatigue.
  • Jealousy or resentment:  You may resent of feel jealous of your friends or family members who can do things you want to be able to do.
  • Embarrassment: You may feel embarrassed if you limp or have to ask for help opening a jar. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself and your reduced abilities.
  • Shame: You could feel shame if you knew the extra weight you were carrying was bad for your knees, but didn’t heed the doctor’s advice to lose weight.
  • Irritability: All that pain, fatigue, frustration and anxiety can make you irritable.
  • Stress and tension:  Physical, financial, relationship and self-image challenges can cause you to feel tense and stressed.
  • Sadness: You may feel low because of what you’re dealing with and for what you have lost. If your blues last for more than two weeks or disrupt your life, you may be dealing with depression and should seek help and support.
  • Depression: You experience a range of emotions that are debilitating and affects your ability to function.

Fostering Emotional Wellbeing

These emotions don’t stand alone. Your mind and body are closely linked. Your physical symptoms will influence the feelings you experience. And your emotions can change the way you perceive physical symptoms, and make them worse. For example, if you’re in pain you may become short-tempered or withdraw from friends and family. On the other hand, focusing on something good in your life can make your aches and pains easier to cope with.  That’s why caring for your emotional health is a critical part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

There are steps you can take to improve your emotional wellbeing. Working with your doctor to get your disease under control and minimize medication side effects is an important first step.  Then, do what you can to keep negative emotions at bay through physical and emotional self-care.  Some self-care options include mind-body practices, music and art therapy, exercise, a healthful diet, massage, and activity pacing. Also, get involved in social activities to prevent feelings of isolation and find outlets for laughter and play.

Living with arthritis can sometimes lead to extreme anxiety and depression. Professional counseling or an arthritis-specific support group can give you an outlet to talk about your emotions and provide you with coping mechanisms.

Doka recommends, “Nurture the strengths you’ve always had. Look back on how you’ve handled crises before and ask yourself how that can be useful to me now.” He says to ask yourself these questions. What are some personal resources I have? How does my faith speak to me? Who do I know who’s very supportive? Who can I talk to?”

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