Author: Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Overwhelming feelings of worry and dread are common among people with arthritis, but that doesn’t mean you have to live with them.
Being a mom, working a high-stress job as an emergency dispatcher, and dealing with osteoarthritis in the hips, knees, ankles, and feet is a lot for anyone to juggle. Julie B., 56, of Denver, Colorado, was so used to just pushing through and putting others’ needs first that when her symptoms anxiety started to creep in, she didn’t realize she was heading for a mental health crisis.
“At first the anxiety felt manageable but over time it became overwhelming. I felt it all the time, constantly. I would wake up every day overcome with dread, to the point where I was even considering how to end my life,” she explains. “Then one really bad day I told my husband, ‘I need you stay home from work with me today’ and he said immediately, ‘Yes, of course.’ That was when I knew I was really bad, because he didn’t even question it. All he had to do was take one look at me to realize how much I was suffering. We both knew I was in trouble.”
Julie’s husband sat with her all day while she cried and told him about the mental and physical pain she had to endure every day. They went to a doctor who took her concerns and pain seriously and started her on a daily anti-anxiety medication, as well as adjusted her arthritis treatments to help lessen her physical pain. The last key to Julie’s recovery was quitting her high-stress job. Now she is doing much better, but she says she shares her scary story frequently, especially with others who have a chronic illness.
“People really underestimate the toll these types of illnesses take on your mental health and think that anxiety is just part of the deal,” she says. “I want people to know they shouldn’t just suffer with it. There are things you can do — today — to feel better.”
What Is Anxiety, Exactly?
Everyone gets anxiety — that feeling of worry, dread, loss of control, fear, impending doom, and/or panic — at some point. Who hasn’t decided to break up with a partner or walked into a big meeting and felt their stomach clench, their palms get sweaty, and their heart rate shoot up?
Anxiety occurs on a spectrum, ranging from mild symptoms that pass quickly once you’re through a stressful situation to quite severe, which can cause regular symptoms like chest pain, trouble breathing, narrowing vision, nausea, diarrhea, or even suicidal thoughts. Because of the variation in anxiety symptoms, people can easily mistake anxiety for things like food poisoning, asthma attacks, or heart attacks, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
At its core, anxiety is a normal and even helpful reaction that happens when your body releases adrenaline as a response to stressful or scary situations to help you fight or escape. But feeling anxiety frequently, getting anxiety that is disproportionate to the situation, or having anxiety as background noise in your daily life is not normal and can damage your health and well-being.
The Connection Between Arthritis and Anxiety
“My doctor didn’t believe my anxiety was related to my illness. She actually told me to wait until after recovering from my surgeries and then we’d deal with the anxiety,” says Rachel F., 36, of Arvada, Colorado, who just had a hip replacement and is scheduled for one in her other hip after she completes her recovery. However, taking care of three children and managing her life with limited mobility, experiencing excruciating chronic pain, and enduring a lengthy physical rehab was incredibly anxiety-inducing. “I worried about everything from my kids to my health and it made me really unmotivated to keep trying,” she explains. “Still my doctor told me my mental health wasn’t connected and that once I’d recovered physically, the anxiety would go away on its own.”
Sadly, this isn’t an uncommon reaction as many people, including doctors, don’t understand the intrinsic connection between mental health disorders and chronic illness, says Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD, a therapist who specializes in treating people with chronic conditions.
Almost one quarter of adults with any type of arthritis report having anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, fewer than half of people with anxiety were receiving medical treatment and only one-third had spoken with a mental health professional about it, the CDC reported. Nearly 20 percent of young people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis reported clinical levels of anxiety, according to a study in the journal BMJ.
Much of anxiety stems from uncertainty and fear — and what is more uncertain than a diagnosis of arthritis or other disease that can affect you for the rest of your life? Anxiety and arthritis become a vicious cycle, with each making the other worse, says Stacy Lawrence, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Psychotherapy for the Lowcountry in Charleston, South Carolina.
“A lot of people feel anxious or depressed when they are in chronic pain,” she explains. “Chronic pain impacts our brain by keeping us in the stress response. Staying in the stress response impacts our brains and bodies in multiple ways, which makes arthritis symptoms worse.”
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