New Arthritis Diagnosis: Take Control
Learn how to combat the uncertainty and loss of control that comes with a new arthritis diagnosis.
By Linda Rath
When you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness like inflammatory arthritis or osteoarthritis, it’s natural to feel like your life is out of control. After all, the world you’re used to has changed overnight. But it’s important to move past that feeling as quickly as possible. Many studies show that patients who have a strong sense of control experience less pain, fatigue and disability than those who feel powerless.
Why Control Matters
Psychologists define control as the belief that you can make positive things happen. Its opposite, fatalism, is the sense that you can’t. In both health and disease, control is by far the better way to go. For one thing, it means you’re more likely to adopt a healthier lifestyle. If you believe you can lose weight, get stronger, and feel better, you will. If you’re convinced you can’t stick to a diet or walk a mile, then you probably won’t. Feeling in control is also an important part of disease management.
What the Science Says
Why is this? Positive and negative expectations and beliefs change brain chemistry, explains Lauren Atlas, PhD, who heads the section on affective neuroscience and pain at the National Institutes of Health.. Positive beliefs stimulate the production of pain-blocking chemicals like endogenous opioids and dopamine. Negative beliefs trigger the release of an anxiety-provoking hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK). Not only does CCK make you feel bad, it also blocks the effectiveness of pain treatments, creating a downward spiral.
Control in Action
April Vallerand, PhD, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, used these ideas to develop a program that helps patients regain control of their lives. One important aspect is learning the best way to think and talk about pain and discomfort.
“There’s a certain dynamic that happens when people complain, so we try to change that dynamic,” Vallerand says. She suggests making conversations about your illness concrete and actionable – a positive instead of a negative approach. For more ways to coach yourself through tough times and to cultivate a more positive attitude, click here.
The program also asks patients to figure out how they can achieve the things that are most meaningful to them. The idea is to focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.
“My question to patients is always, ‘What does this keep you from doing?’ If I can find out what that is, we can target that specific thing and work to get them back to functioning and doing the things that are important to them,” Vallerand says.
Probably the most important testimonials come from arthritis patients themselves. Many say that the best thing they ever did was not to let their disease get the upper hand. There’s the story of a young man who was a serious rock climber. After his PsA diagnosis, he stopped climbing because he lost some of the grip strength in his hands. So, he took up surfing instead. That’s what taking control is all about – remembering that you are not your disease and there are different ways to continue having a fulfilling and productive life. Challenges in life can take many different forms and managing arthritis will always have ups and downs. Understanding your disease, listening to your body, having open communication with your doctor, managing stress, being kind to yourself, learning when it’s important to say no and connecting with others are some of the important ways to take control and thrive.