Coach Yourself Through Tough Times With Arthritis
Living with arthritis can pose challenges, but these techniques can help ease anxiety during stressful times.
By Robyn Abree
Living with the unpredictability of arthritis can cause a level of ongoing anxiety. Events like flares, surgeries or virus outbreaks (i.e., the coronavirus) can heighten stress, making bad days with arthritis worse.
But anxiety isn’t always a bad thing, says Ethan Kross, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. In fact, it motivates protective behaviors, like practicing social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak. But chronic anxiety can weaken the immune system and interfere with relationships, he says. Several studies point to the effects of chronic stress on immunity, including a 2014 review published in Immunologic Research. Importantly, it can hinder the ability to problem solve, so when you find yourself in a challenging situation, you’re less likely to effectively prepare and plan for it.
But you don’t have to let anxious thoughts take the wheel. Using a few simple strategies, you can coach yourself through challenging situations and regain some control.
Talk to Yourself Like a Friend
Imagine a friend comes to you for advice. Chances are, you’re able to offer a new perspective or a rational solution your friend hadn’t yet thought of. “That’s because emotions aren’t clouding your judgment and it’s easier for people to weigh in on situations that don’t directly affect them,” says Dr. Kross.
This idea – looking at problems from an objective point of view to make better decisions– is the driving force behind “self-distancing,” a term coined by Kross and his colleagues.
One method of self-distancing is changing the way you talk to yourself. Instead of using pronouns like “I” and “me,” think about your problems using your own name. Just this simple verbal shift has a profound impact on how people deal with challenging and uncertain situations, says Kross.
For example, if you’re worried about the coronavirus, you might say to something yourself like: “[Insert your name] you really need to take care of yourself and do all you can to stay healthy. That means you’ll need to get good sleep, eat healthy, take your medications as prescribed and stay at home for a while.”
If that doesn’t seem like it will get rid of the problem, that’s not the point. Self-distancing isn’t about taking away the threat, but rather helping you make better decisions so you can prepare for the situation at hand, says Dr. Kross. As a result, you’ll likely feel less anxious knowing you have a solid plan in place.
Look to the Future
Another self-distancing strategy is called temporal distancing, which involves imagining how you’ll feel once the crisis is over. For example, if you’re worried about the coronavirus, think about how you'll feel when normal life resumes and a vaccine exists, says Dr. Kross.
In times of uncertainty, it can also be helpful to draw from past challenges where you came out ahead, he says.
An example of this strategy might look something like this: “[Insert your name], you’ve gone through flares before, and each time you’ve managed to get through them. You’re strong, and you’ve always taken actions to keep yourself healthy. You’ll bring the same approach to this situation. You’ll look back at this time and remember , how you overcame this challenge.”
These kinds of pep talks, where you use past accomplishments to look to the future, helps shift you into a “can-do” mindset, says Dr. Kross. You know you’re capable of overcoming the current challenge, because you’ve done it before.
Recruit Other Coaches
While learning to coach yourself is undoubtedly useful, it doesn’t hurt to have other coaches in your corner when you get stuck. Having a strong social support network is an incredibly powerful tool, and other people can act as great distancing agents, says Dr. Kross. But you must be picky about who you allow in your inner circle.
Kross warns that people who share similar struggles can easily fall into a co-rumination trap. That means they feed each other’s anxiety when discussing shared problems instead of helping one another think of rational solutions.
“If you turn to someone for help with a problem and they just tell you how worried they are too, without offering a solution, that may only make the problem worse,” he says.
Choose people who are good at lifting you up, rather than those who are likely to keep you down. It can also help to ask for solutions upfront, he says. Good listeners will validate your emotions but let them know you’re looking for practical support and advice, too.
For example, if you use an online forum, instead of saying, “I’m going through x today, and it’s horrible,” post something that invites a helpful dialogue like, “ I’m going through x today, and I’m having a tough time. Does anybody have any solutions or advice for me?” This approach is more likely to attract the type of support you need.
The Live Yes! Arthritis Network includes a virtual community of supportive individuals ready to help you in your times of need. Visit arthritis.org/liveyes to join, and for even more ways to ease anxiety, click here.
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