If you’ve found yourself lying awake at night in pain and desperately searching the rabbit warren of Dr. Google for answers; asking “Do rheumatoid arthritis symptoms get worse if you’re stressed?” then this blog post is for you.

As you were asking that question, you probably knew deep down that the answer is yes, your symptoms are likely to be worse when you’re stressed. What you REALLY need to know though, is how to cope with that stress, and the stress-symptoms cycle it brings about so that you can turn down the volume on your next stress-induced rheumatoid arthritis flare. In this blog post, you’ll discover 3 simple tools for managing stress-related rheumatoid arthritis flares.

Does this sound familiar?

You’re knee-deep in work, you’re in your groove, maybe you’ve got a bit too much on your plate (and your brain), and then WHAM, those telltale signs start popping up. For you that could mean body-slamming fatigue, aches, and pains all over as well as stiffness in your joints.

I feel so strongly about stress and the related rheumatoid arthritis flares that it has caused me that I quickly want to share my experience.
Do rheumatoid arthritis symptoms get worse if you're stressed

A few years before I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis I had been working in a very stressful, high-paced job. I traveled frequently. One day I might be on the west coast US and the next week I might be in Asia. I worked across multiple timezones, I worked loooong hours and when I was home my office was a 3-hour round trip from home.

I was frazzled, and stressed, and felt incredibly guilty that I was away from home so much. I had two young children that needed me at home and I wanted to be at home with them. 

So, I did what I felt was right and got a new job working for a company that wasn’t as stressful to work for and was more considerate of family life. I began to feel like myself again.

But then my body crashed. I couldn’t function because of unrelenting fatigue, my hands and feet were swollen and painful and I just felt awful. Simple things like holding a steering wheel, wearing nice shoes, brushing or washing my hair, peeling vegetables, typing, and sometimes just sitting, standing, or lying in the same position for extended periods of time caused me a lot of pain and discomfort.

My Rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis story

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

After a few months, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis. I started medication and it took a year and a half to find one that continues to work for me and for this I am very grateful. I know that some people are not so lucky. 

I hand on heart believe that because I was in a high stressed state for nearly 3 years that when I started to relax and return to a “normal” pace of life, my body went into shock and decided enough was enough.

Why do my rheumatoid arthritis symptoms get worse when I’m stressed?

Your body has a natural ability to react during times of stress, especially in those situations where you’re facing a huge threat. As a matter of survival, humans have always had this ability. In prehistoric times, humans came face-to-face with all sorts of wild animals, such as bears or tigers.

In response to such a threat, our body activates the Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response, or FFF reaction.

Why do I feel worse when Im stressed

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the physical sensations we get when we feel stress, anxiety, or severe anger and frustration. These can include sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and faster breathing. The activation of the FFF response is preparing our bodies to either run, fight the threat, or freeze. The parasympathetic nervous system is triggered once the danger has passed. When the parasympathetic nervous system is functioning then our heart rate slows, our breathing calms and blood that was diverted to our muscles is sent back on its usual journey.

The problem with the activation of the Fight or Flight Response is that it can be activated whenever you perceive that you’re up against a threat – whether you really are facing a threat or not.

Even though you will experience negative situations in your life, this does not necessarily make them a threat to your physical well-being.

Situations involving personal relationships, work responsibilities, verbal arguments with others, and bad news about the health of loved ones are just a few scenarios that can trigger the FFF response.

Despite the fact that all of these situations may be emotionally hurtful or painful, your body’s nervous system may interpret them as physically threatening. As such, your body activates the natural FFF response to get us ready to fight or run away.

In order to tell your body that the situations we’re facing don’t require a fight or flight response, we must trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system produces the opposite response to the FFF, causing a relaxation response instead. 

Sadly, modern life has left many of us unable to move out of that stressed state. Things like constant email notifications, lack of work/life boundaries, and social media can cause you to feel like and behave like you are in danger. 

What is the impact of stress on rheumatoid arthritis?

The stress_pain cycle

Scientists aren’t clear on the stress and rheumatoid arthritis connection but it is thought to be a trigger. Stress may cause an inflammatory response, which can lead to inflammation which in turn could trigger a flare-up.

But, that’s not all! It can become a vicious cycle…..just like the diagram above!!

What can you do to keep your stress-related rheumatoid arthritis flares at bay?

There are lots of ways such as exercise and a healthy balanced diet that will help with stress levels. But, in this blog, I want to share with you 3 of my favourite techniques that you will love. They are easy and simple to use. 

This is important for me as a busy working mum. I don’t have hours every day to spend on self-care, unfortunately. I’m sure you don’t either! And, while these techniques won’t take hours or even minutes, you do need to be consistent. Build these into your daily routine and you will feel like you can cope better with stress. Read more on how complementary therapies can help you here.

Hand reflexology for stress-related rheumatoid arthritis flares

The centre of the palm of your hand is the reflex point for the solar plexus. All you have to do is to massage this area with your thumb in gentle circles. You can do this on both hands.

The thumb on my right hand can be pretty bad from a pain perspective, so if it’s too sore to use my thumb, I use the knuckle of my index finger. Remember that it’s meant to be gentle so you don’t need force.

I use this all the time when I’m in meetings, when I’m chatting to friends, or when my kids were younger when I was listening to their excited chatter about how their day went. An interesting thing about this point is that you will see people rubbing the centre of their palm without actually realising it. Watch out for this and you will notice it!

Breathing to ease stress-related rheumatoid arthritis flares

The second technique I want to share is an easy breathing technique. This is a really simple but powerful technique. All you have to do is place your hand on your chest, close your eyes and just inhale deeply and exhale completely. 

This can be done while waiting for the kettle to boil, sitting at traffic lights, in bed, anywhere. I always start my day with this. It just takes 1 min before I get out of bed. If I’m having a difficult day or I know I have a lot on at work, I will pepper this technique in a lot throughout the day. This helps me to calm my heart rate, slow my breathing, and generally feel more relaxed. 

After the FFF response is triggered, breathing exercises help to send the blood supplies back from the extremities (since we’re not concerned with running or fighting) to the areas of the brain that allow us to think, reason, and problem solve.

This is why breathing exercises work to calm us when we experience acute stress, anger, or frustration. Blood is returning to the brain and it becomes easier for us to think.

Aromatherapy to prevent stress-related rheumaotid arthritis flares

aromatherapy for stress relief

The last technique I want to mention in this blog post is aromatherapy.

What I’m going to share with you today are 3 essential oils that I turn to when I’m feeling stressed. Aromatherapy is my absolute favourite therapy. I use the oils if I’ve had a rough day or if the kids are driving me nuts, they really helped to settle my stress levels and actually make me smile. I instantly feel calm when I smell any of these essential oils. 

Lavender. This oil comes from the leaves and flowers of the lavender plant. It is used in so many sleep and stress-reducing products and with good reason. Lavender essential oil calms and soothes the nervous system and will help keep stress levels in check.

Sweet Orange. This essential oil is extracted from the rind of the orange. You know when you are peeling an orange and a splash of liquid can shoot out of the rind? Well, that is the essential oil. It calms the mind yet uplifts and energises your mood. It is sparkly and full of joy and will again help to keep stress levels at bay.

Frankincense. You may not be as familiar with this oil. It has a deep musky, sweet scent. Frankincense is used a lot in meditation because it encourages deep breathing which makes it ideal for times when you are stressed. Remember, when stressed your breathing rate is higher than normal to get lots of oxygen to your legs, heart and brain! Frankincense will help you to focus on your slowing down your breathing.

How do you use essential oils to help with stress?

How to use essential oils for stress

The simplest way to use essential oils is in your diffuser. Now, don’t worry if you don’t have a diffuser, I have a few ideas for you if you don’t so keep reading!

Follow the instructions of the manufacturer to set up and use your diffuser. Use the number of drops of oil that they recommend. If they don’t recommend a number of drops, then use no more than 15 drops in total. You can mix the number of drops of each oil so for example I might use 5 drops of lavender, 5 drops of Sweet Orange, and 5 drops of Frankincense. BUT,  and this is really important you don’t need to use all 3 oils. You only need one! So, if you have lavender use 15 drops of lavender. Remember, this is all about reducing your stress levels not making them worse!!

So, that brings me to what to use if you don’t have a diffuser! 

  1. The first idea is to put some salt in a container with a lid. It doesn’t have to be fancy,  I’ve used a glass yogurt jar for this, another thing you could use is a clean empty face cream container. All you do is add 2-3 tablespoons of salt to the container and add the drops of the essential oils to the salt. If you want to diffuse the oils, take the lid off, and when you are finished just pop the lid back on. This is also great because you can leave the covered jar beside your bed, or on your desk and just take a sniff when you need to. Again, I would use no more than 15 drops of essential oils. 

2. Another thing you do is to put the oils on some cotton wool and leave it beside you. If you are doing this then reduce to 3-5 drops in total. Definitely no more than this.

Some extra advice on using essential oils.

Make sure to keep any diffusers, jars, or cotton wool out of the reach of children and pets so they won’t accidentally end up in mouths or in eyes.

If you are diffusing oils in a room with pets, make sure to leave a door open so that they can leave if they need to. 

And there you have it! I hope that you can see how stress might make you feel worse with rheumatoid arthritis? Why not give one of the stress-reducing strategies a go and see if it works for you.

If you would like to learn more about how complementary therapies and holistic tools can help you live with rheumatoid arthritis then why not book a free call with me to chat about the various ways you can work with me

Just click the button below!

If you’re interested in reading more on this topic try this article from the arthritis foundation and this article from Creaky Joints.