Many types of stress can trigger lupus flares in people living with lupus. Practicing stress management techniques may help you prevent future flares.

People with lupus — an autoimmune condition — are sensitive to both physical and emotional stress. High stress levels can cause symptoms to flare up. During symptom flares, inflammation can affect different parts of your body, including your joints and your organs.

Lupus flares often follow stressful life events, like a divorce or the death of a loved one. But they can also be triggered by ongoing stress at home or at work. Physical stress, like an injury or surgery, can also trigger a lupus flare.

If you live with lupus, there are several strategies you can try to help you manage stress. This may help reduce disease activity and prevent serious organ damage.

A lupus flare is a period of time when disease activity gets worse.

You may experience worsening symptoms, like joint pain or fatigue. But sometimes lupus flares go unnoticed, which is why it’s important for you to see your doctor regularly for blood tests.

Some people experience the same symptoms during every flare-up, but it’s important to be on the lookout for new symptoms. New symptoms can appear at any time and may be a sign that your condition is affecting a new part of your body.

Symptoms of a lupus flare may include:

Because your body is inflamed during flare-ups, flares increase your risk of organ damage. Preventing flares is one of the main goals of lupus treatment.

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, emotional stress can trigger lupus flares. It is one of many possible triggers, including infections, ultraviolet light, and exhaustion.

Types of stress

Stress can come from many areas of life. A job or relationship can bring emotional challenges or a serious life event can throw things into turmoil.

Stressors that can trigger lupus include:

  • parenting
  • caregiving
  • debt or financial distress
  • job stress
  • exams or other school stress
  • grief or loss
  • divorce or breakup
  • discrimination and harassment
  • anxiety
  • trauma

If you have lupus, managing long-term stress can be an important part of preventing flares.

How stress affects the body

Whether or not you have lupus, your body may experience symptoms when you are under stress. These may include:

  • trouble sleeping
  • a weakened immune system
  • headaches
  • high blood pressure
  • raised heart rate
  • stomachaches
  • weight gain or obesity
  • fertility issues
  • changes in your menstrual cycle
  • reduced sex drive

Physical stress, like an injury, creates an immune system response which can trigger a lupus flare.

If you become pregnant, for example, you may be at greater risk for a flare, especially in the first or second trimester. Giving birth also increases your risk of a flare.

Infection, injury, certain medications, and stopping lupus medications are other kinds of physical stress that may lead to a flare.

The exact cause of lupus is unknown. But some researchers believe that PTSD or trauma increases the risk of developing lupus.

A 2017 study followed more than 50,000 women over a period of 24 years. The goal was to measure any association between trauma exposure and lupus.

The study found that exposure to trauma, even if there were no symptoms of PTSD, was strongly associated with lupus. Those with many PTSD symptoms were also at greater risk for lupus.

You can take steps to manage stress while living with lupus.

Adopt a “plan ahead” approach

You may be able to reduce stress by taking time to plan your daily tasks or important events like doctor’s appointments. Write down questions for your doctor before you go.

Before a hectic day, plan how to get from place to place and when you’ll have time to eat and relax between errands.

Have a flexible exercise routine

Research supports a link between exercise and lower stress levels. A 2019 study found physical activity reduced stress in the hours immediately following the exercise.

Consider staying active but listening to your body, matching the intensity of the exercise with how you feel from day to day.

Put relaxation on the agenda

Taking time out can help to preserve and restore your energy reserves.

The Lupus Foundation of America recommends scheduling breaks, such as 20 minutes during the workday or one full day on the weekend. During this time, you can read, meditate, be creative, or do nothing at all.

Prioritize quality sleep

Sleep deficiency can make you feel frustrated and worried. Lack of sleep can also worsen the fatigue that comes with a lupus flare. Consider these steps to improve your sleep hygiene to get enough nightly rest.

Reach out for help

According to a 2017 review of research, 24% of people with lupus have depression and 37% have anxiety.

Talking with a healthcare professional about mental health is the first step on the road to mental wellness. Community connection through lupus support groups can also help with managing emotional stress.

Emotional or psychological stress, as well as physical stress, can trigger lupus flares. People living with lupus can use stress reduction strategies such as exercise and community involvement to manage stress and prevent flares.