If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you aren’t always feeling 100 percent. Your joints can swell and hurt, and you can feel fatigued. Your sleep patterns are frequently disrupted by pain and sometimes by treatment side effects. Eating habits can change, leading to fluctuations in weight. You also might miss work and social opportunities, and not be able to do other things you like.
All those factors can add up to depression, a debilitating condition found frequently in those with RA. Depression isn’t just a psychological downer. It can actually make your RA worse.
People experience depression in different forms. For some, it’s a minor undertow of negative thoughts eating away at happiness over time. Others experience a major physical and psychological depletion that prevents them from getting out of bed. How can you fight the depression that may rise with RA and boost your morale to help manage your disease? Keep reading to find out.
One morale booster might sound backward: Allow yourself to complain.
Janine Monty blogs about her experiences with RA at Arthritic Chick. She’s found liberation through writing the straight dope about living with a chronic condition. “I’m not super-human and I don’t have to be,” she says. In addition to writing her blog, she meets monthly with a psychologist and has a close friend she particularly confides in. These are her safety valves. “When I kept it all to myself, I had a complete emotional breakdown,” says Monty.
Stand up and move
Most of us know we should exercise more. If you’re fighting RA and depression, moving around is more important than ever. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise launches your brain’s positive mood chemicals, immediately making you feel better and providing positive reinforcement for getting off your butt.
Try not to set lofty exercise goals. Rachel DeBusk, a holistic wellness coach who runs Unstill Life Fitness Coaching in Seattle, values consistency as much as towering achievement. “Instead of a ‘workout,’ think of having a physical ritual. A walk around the block and 10 minutes of dancing in your living room are everyday victories.”
Sit down and hold still
Holding still could actually help you, though, if it means meditating. And no, you don’t have to sit with your legs crossed, which could be difficult with RA — any stable position will do. A review of studies published in 2013 concluded that mindfulness meditation does have benefits for depression, anxiety, and pain relief.
Just like exercise, start low and slow. Don’t expect to reach nirvana in one sitting. Five minutes of quietly sitting and listening to your breathing is a helpful first step.
Eat mood foods
Can what you eat boost your morale? The answer seems to be yes. Eating complex carbohydrates like brown rice and whole wheat bread releases the positive mood chemical serotonin. Two other feel-good hormones, dopamine and norepinephrine, are released when you eat protein.
Conversely, a diet high in simple sugars, like those found in soda, and refined foods like white bread has been linked to depression. A lack of certain vitamins could also be affecting your morale. Talk to your rheumatologist about whether your dietary needs are being met and how you might improve or supplement them.
With RA, you definitely need to be getting plenty of sleep and rest. You might find that keeping up with a social life is difficult in these circumstances, but you should still stay socially connected. There appears to be a strong relationship between spending time with others and being less depressed, according to at least one study.
Consider joining a book club or gathering friends for a monthly potluck dinner. If you’d like to spend time with people who understand firsthand what you’re going through, look for an RA or chronic pain support group in your area.
RA might throw a fair number of challenges in the way of leading an enjoyable life. To counter them, there are many easily accomplished and even pleasurable tasks that can boost your morale and alleviate RA symptoms.
You don’t have to take on everything suggested previously, nor expend intensive efforts for any to make a difference. Consider trying out some low-key socializing, and letting yourself vent some bad feelings. Eat those foods that improve your mood, move your body just a little, and settle down intentionally to relax. Any of these can put you on the path to pain reduction and more pleasure in your daily life.