The mind and the body are deeply interconnected.
Bodily symptoms can affect your mood and mood or thought patterns can affect bodily symptoms. There are also mental and emotional concerns that come from knowing you have an illness that often requires a lifetime of treatment, has no cure, and may be progressive. Learning to cope with the mental and emotional aspects of chronic disease is an increasingly important part of well-rounded care for a disease like RA.
Using mind-body treatments does not mean that you are “making up your symptoms” or that your symptoms are not “real.” Instead, mind-body treatments seek to create a healthy relationship between your symptoms and the way you interpret them and their meaning for you as a person. If we think of RA like a fire within your joints, the quality of your mind-body relationship determines whether you are pouring water to limit that fire, or mistakenly pouring gasoline on that fire that makes it worse. Thus, developing a mind-body approach may improve your ability to manage your RA and enjoy a fuller life.
These approaches are included in your treatment plan, along with your prescribed medication, physical and/or occupational therapy, and healthy lifestyle changes such as an anti-inflammatory diet, regular exercise, and getting good sleep. It is important to keep in mind that these techniques are best used as add-ons to your current medication and treatment regimen — not as replacements.
Techniques to help you relax or ease stress can help you manage chronic pain or anxiety that’s common in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Relaxation therapies include:
Science shows some benefits of incorporating aromatherapy into your RA treatment plan. Aromatherapy is the use of “aromatic oils” — the most concentrated extracts from flowers, herbs, trees, and other plants — to ease physical and emotional ailments. The practice has been around since ancient times. Today aromatherapy oils, known as essential oils, are incorporated in massage, added to baths, or breathed in through a nasal inhaler or diffuser.
Biofeedback is a mind-body technique that helps people learn to notice physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. During a biofeedback session, a practitioner may attach sensors to your skin (similar to those used during an EKG for your heart) in order to measure body temperature, brainwaves, heart function, and/or muscle tension. Based on these measures, you will then learn how to control these usually “automatic” body functions using breathing, relaxation, or visualization techniques to reduce the impact of your symptoms.
Guided imagery, also known as visualization, is a form of meditation that draws on your senses. Research shows that guided imagery can reduce pain, anxiety, and stress, which is a flare trigger for many people with RA. To try it: Sit quietly and take a few slow, deep breaths to calm your body. Close your eyes and create in your mind a place you find relaxing, like a white-sand beach or snow-topped mountain. Use your senses to imagine the details of the image that you create. What does it smell like there? What does it sound like there? What does it feel like there? Immerse yourself in that place to make the image more vivid. You can be led through this process by a guide or teacher, a smartphone app or computer program to explore it further, or try it on your own.
Meditation means to “ponder.” When you meditate, you focus inward to increase calmness, concentration, and emotional balance. There are different types of mediation that can be used to cope with RA symptoms, stress, or anxiety. There are many types of meditation and many resources out there, from online courses to real-world meditation groups, as well as cellphone apps and computer programs to guide you through meditation. And of course, the beauty of meditation is that once you get started, you can develop your ability and reap the benefits without anything but yourself, a few moments, and a comfortable place to sit or lie down. There is no right or wrong type of mediation. You get to choose whichever form you like the best, so feel free to explore.
Mindfulness refers to being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment through a gentle nurturing lens in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help in coping with symptoms of RA by improving your relationship with, and your thoughts and feelings about, your RA symptoms. Being more mindful doesn’t necessarily require special training, but it does take practice to learn to be able to adopt a neutral observer’s perspective on your symptoms. Many people find that practicing meditation, yoga, or tai chi helps them become more mindful during their regular daily activities. Becoming more mindful may improve your ability to control pain and other RA symptoms and your response to them.
Breath work has been shown to help regulate brain activity when the body is overstimulated with overwhelming feelings such as fear, anger, grief, and anxiety. According to research, even just a few minutes of deep breathing — for instance, breathing in for a count of four and out for a count of eight — can start to calm your body’s responsiveness and gain some mastery over your stress responses and your symptoms. You can try deep breathing on your own, or look for guided breathing exercises on YouTube or via a meditation app on your smartphone.
Talk therapy, or talking to a mental health professional or trained counselor, is a popular type of psychotherapy to help people with chronic illness. The mind-body approach of talk therapy isn’t just about lying on a therapist’s couch; it’s about changing your thinking, perspective, and behavior.
Here are some additional articles and videos that will help you take a mind-body approach to living with RA.
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