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The emotional side of arthritis

A chronic illness such as arthritis can bring physical challenges, but it can also affect your emotional and mental health. Feelings such as helplessness, anxiety and depression shouldn't be ignored.

Arthritis has a physical side, the one that causes pain, stiffness and other symptoms that can limit your activities. But there's another, emotional side to the disease that's also important to address.

The emotional effects of arthritis often include feelings such as sadness, anxiety, depression, helplessness and low self-esteem.

If you're feeling these things, you should know that in no way do they signal any sort of character flaw, says Teresa J. Brady, PhD, a former senior behavioral scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Arthritis Program.

"When people encounter major life changes, like developing a chronic disease such as arthritis, that's a major stressor to deal with," Dr. Brady says. "And feelings of loss, feelings of depression, anger or anxiety can all be natural responses to that."

You should also know that managing these emotions can make your life better.

"As those feelings of distress go down, some of the symptoms of arthritis can decrease as well," Dr. Brady says.

Take steps to cope

Two steps often recommended to help manage the physical aspects of arthritis can also improve emotional well-being, according to Dr. Brady. They are:

Exercise. Physical activities, such as regular, brisk walking, can improve pain, fatigue and joint symptoms. "But it also can improve your mood and have psychological benefits as well," Dr. Brady notes. Your doctor can help you choose activities that are safe for you.

Education. Research shows that arthritis education programs can help people cope physically, emotionally and mentally.

Learn more about arthritis intervention programs at cdc.gov/arthritis/intervention.

Consider these additional coping tips:

  • Avoid catastrophic thinking. Be realistic but optimistic in the way that you talk to yourself, Dr. Brady says.
  • Have fun. Even a "5-minute vacation," such as getting a laugh out of newspaper cartoons, can help, Dr. Brady says.
  • Make contact. Set up a social network of friends or family to call when you need a good listener. You might also consider joining a support group to share feelings and learn from others with similar experiences.
  • Control stress. A chronic illness can add stress to your life, and stress can contribute to pain and depression, reports the Arthritis Foundation.
  • Watch for signs of depression. When feelings such as sadness linger and interfere with daily living, it might be major depression, a potentially debilitating condition that can sap your energy and make getting better more difficult.

Dr. Brady suggests talking to someone about what you're feeling and making a plan for feeling better at the first sign of depressive symptoms.

Reviewed 10/13/2020

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