Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in your joints. If you have RA, you’re familiar with how painful and frustrating the illness can be. Although there are medications and treatments that can help greatly with pain management, mobility, and dexterity, rheumatoid arthritis can still be a significant source of stress.
RA doesn’t just affect your physical health. People with rheumatoid arthritis are also more likely to struggle with mental health disorders. Any chronic illness can be a major emotional challenge, and there’s a particularly strong link between rheumatoid arthritis and mental health.
An RA diagnosis isn’t a guarantee that you’ll suffer from mental health symptoms, though. Just like you can manage your rheumatoid arthritis by following your doctor’s recommended treatment regimen, you can get your mental health symptoms under control and live a happy and peaceful life despite your chronic illness.
The Connection Between RA and Mental Health
Researchers suggest that there’s a bi-directional connection between rheumatoid arthritis and mental health. This means that the physical effects of rheumatoid arthritis can make your mental health symptoms worse, and poor mental health can worsen the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, many seniors with rheumatoid arthritis feel like they’re caught in a vicious cycle. They know they need to focus on their mental and emotional well-being in order to improve their symptoms, but the presence of RA in their lives makes it difficult to overcome their mental health challenges.
The main cause of this bi-directional relationship is stress, which has both physiological and mental components. Rheumatoid arthritis causes chronic inflammation, which weakens your body’s response to stress. When your body can’t handle stress, it releases chemicals that change your mood. There’s a strong link between your physical and emotional health when it comes to stress management, so when your body is stressed, it takes a serious toll on your mental and emotional state.
Specific Mental Health Concerns That May Affect People with Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Depression
Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses people with RA struggle with. Sometimes, the initial diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis can cause a period of depression, or a particularly bad flare-up could lead to depressive symptoms. When you’re coming to terms with a diagnosis, you have to go through the stages of grief. Many people report feeling sad, hopeless, guilty, or unmotivated in the weeks or months following their diagnosis.
Depression can also result from stress when you have RA. The autoimmune disease reduces your body’s ability to handle stress, so you may feel the psychological effects more strongly. Without healthy coping skills for stress, you can quickly fall into a depressive episode.
The pain associated with RA may contribute to depression, too. When you’re dealing with inflammation and joint pain, it can sometimes feel difficult to have a good outlook on life. You might not be motivated to complete your activities of daily living, see your friends or family, or engage in your hobbies due to your chronic pain.
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Anxiety
After depression, anxiety is the second-most common mental health disorder people with RA face. Any chronic illness can cause persistent worry and fear, especially in those who are naturally prone to anxiety. You might experience anxiety regarding the future of your physical health, or you may feel anxious about how the disease currently affects your day-to-day life. Prescription drug costs, difficulty working, and other issues can cause anxiety, too.
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Mood Swings
RA may not cause one consistent mental or emotional symptom in every individual. Instead, many seniors with rheumatoid arthritis experience intense mood swings. Sometimes, the emotional highs and lows meet the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder. Other times, these mood issues don’t fall under a specific diagnosis, but they can still be incredibly confusing and difficult to navigate.
The causes of mood swings for people with rheumatoid arthritis are similar to the causes of depression. The chronic inflammation, pain, fatigue, and other symptoms can make it harder for you to withstand stress, so you may react more intensely to certain stressors or situations.
How to Improve Your Mental Health if You Have Rheumatoid Arthritis
RA may affect your lifestyle and your daily routine, but there are ways to alleviate your mental health symptoms so that you can continue to live a happy and meaningful life. One of the most important steps you should take to manage your mental and emotional health is to work closely with your general practitioner and your rheumatologist. The physical symptoms of RA do contribute to depression and anxiety, so controlling the physical aspect of the disease will help to improve your mental health.
If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or other psychological concerns, talk to your doctor about your experiences. So many patients with RA face these challenges, and your physician can be a good resource for referrals to mental health experts. Your doctor may prescribe you medication to help with the mental disorder, or they may refer you to a psychologist or therapist.
Counseling for seniors is an excellent way to improve your emotional symptoms. In therapy, you can express and explore your feelings about your diagnosis, and you can learn healthy ways to cope during challenging moments. By taking these proactive steps to strengthen your mental health, you can stay energized and motivated, which will help you tackle the physical symptoms of RA.
Making modifications to your lifestyle and environment can be very helpful, too. Instead of facing daily challenges that cause physical pain or discomfort, acknowledge the ways in which you need to change your life. Maybe switching up your diet to avoid foods that cause inflammation will help with your symptoms, or maybe you need to invest in kitchen gadgets or other tools that reduce the strain on the joints in your hands. By making these changes to avoid pain and stress, you’ll set yourself up for success in managing the physical and mental symptoms of the illness.
Reaching out to others for support when you need it is essential, too. Many older adults hesitate to ask for help or to admit when they’re struggling. Your loved ones want to be there for you, though, and leaning on them during difficult times can strengthen your bond with them. If you can’t or don’t want to ask for help from friends or family, you could also look for professional resources in your area. For example, your local senior center may help you arrange transportation to doctor appointments, or a local community service agency could provide you with meals if your RA makes it difficult to cook.
Rheumatoid arthritis can be a painful condition, but receiving support from others makes the experience much easier. Blue Moon Senior Counseling connects licensed therapists with seniors who are struggling with depression, anxiety, grief, stress, and many other concerns. If you or an aging loved one is looking for professional support for managing mental health, you can contact us today.