Get Ahead of Winter Blues When You Have Rheumatoid Arthritis
People with RA face an increased risk for developing depression, so it makes sense to try to protect yourself from mood disorders.
By Everyday Health Guest Columnist
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By CreakyJoints, Special to Everyday Health
Over three decades ago, researchers at the National Institutes of Health noticed that people seemed to feel more sad and gloomy during the winter months when there was less light. Though an actual diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is fairly rare, it’s important to know the signs of symptoms of depression in order to seek help. Depression may be common, but it is not normal and it is treatable.
Don’t Wait for Your Doctor to Ask About Your Symptoms or Mood Issues
When CreakyJoints and Everyday Health cohosted a Twitter Chat in October 2019 for people living with rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic diseases to discuss how they cope with mental health issues, several participants stated that doctors rarely ask about emotional health. “My rheumatologist doesn’t [bring up mental health]. I decide to bring it up if I feel like my disease activity is making my anxiety worse,” said one CreakyJoints member.
This suggests that people living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) should be ready to raise mood issues with their providers.
Tell Your Doctor About Any New Feelings of Anxiety, Depression or Frustration
“We encourage all patients with signs and symptoms of mood alteration to bring this to their physicians’ attention,” says CreakyJoints' medical director, Jonathan Krant, MD, the chief of medicine and rheumatology at Adirondacks Medical Center in Saranac Lakes, New York. “Changes in appetite, sexual desire, motivation, and alertness may all be tip-offs to incipient depression, and require urgent attention. There are a variety of treatments available ranging from therapy to medication.”
How to Deal With the Winter Blues and Depression Symptoms When You Have RA
This #CreakyChat showed that people living with arthritis want their mental health to be addressed by their rheumatologists as part of their standard treatment. It also demonstrated the power of positive and encouraging peer-to-peer support. A study published inEpidemiology and Psychiatric Sciencesin April 2019 found that people with mental illness derived significant benefits from interacting online with others in similar circumstances.
In “Raising the Voice of Patients: A Patient’s Guide to RA,” CreakyJoints offers the following tips to help people cope with depression and boost resilience.
- Get support. Turn to family or friends and your doctor when you are struggling with your emotions or feel like you’re in despair. The ArthritisPower patient governor and CreakyJoints member Shelley Fritz lives with both rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease. Despite juggling her family and full-time work as a teacher, she started her own support group in Tampa, Florida, to connect with people who could relate to her experience of chronic disease. Fritz says: “Our group isn’t just talk. We go to dinner, participate in awareness walks, and even take group exercise classes together. Our goal is to celebrate our abilities and lean on each other during life’s inevitable ups and downs.” Support groups of others living with RA, including in person and online (like CreakyJoints), may help you share your feelings, find solutions to your challenges, or just feel that you’re not alone.
- Focus on the positive.Studies have shown that the more hopeful you are, the more resilient you will be. CreakyJoints member and Georgia resident Eddie Applegate said, “I have seen or read of many patients who do get bogged down in the negative aspects of our disease (and there are many). But I firmly believe a positive attitude does help you physically. Focus on the things you can do and enjoy (reading, spending time with friends), and focus on how you can help others through your experiences (blogging, message boards, support groups). [I also] focus on reading up about new treatments and tips.”
- Learn from experience.Keep track of how different treatments affect you and what works best for your body. Applegate added, “Knowing your body is a key component [to managing your disease]. Use an app (such as ArthritisPower) or write in a journal to keep up with how you feel on a daily or weekly basis and tie it to your medicines, especially when they change. I changed medicines a few years ago. I realized it wasn't working for me within a short period of time. That's because I knew my body and I knew my symptoms. I was able to tell how it wasn't working for me, and within six months, I was off this medication. [I suggest tracking] side effects as well as your main symptoms. Most importantly, let your doctor know about all of these. You know your body and how your disease affects you better than anyone. Be your own advocate.”
- Expand your knowledge. Read up on RA and how to manage it. The more you know about your condition, the more power you will have to control its effect on your life and well-being.
- Stay active in life. Make time to find and do things that you enjoy. Find new activities that are easy, like reading, watching movies, taking gentle walks, or visiting with friends. Jennifer Walker, a Texan who lives with RA, finds that she’s stiffer and more sore in the winter. As cold weather approaches, she sets up a comfortable art space with good lighting. She says, “Drawing is my meditation. It calms me and relaxes me. So, having a spot set up that isn't centered around a desk or table that might be hard to use is important to me. I can easily pick up on something I was working on or begin a quick sketch with everything at my fingertips.” In addition, Jennifer is also a CreakyJoints member, and keeps her week busy to stay motivated. “I try to plan fun activities once a week. Maybe that means bingeing on movies with a friend, a trip to the art museum where I tuck myself into the corner to draw, or local events. I usually [identify] two or three events in a week so that I can at least attend one of them. This makes me feel accomplished.”
- Exercise. Movement is not just great for your joints and muscles, it’s also known to improve your mood and decrease anxiety. Christa Fairbrother, who has mixed connective tissue disease, is also a Yoga for Arthritis instructor. When describing why she started teaching, she says, “I became a Yoga for Arthritis instructor in 2015 because the practice of yoga benefited me both physically and emotionally. Yoga is about listening to your body and doing what is best for you in the moment. Remember that, over time, the continued effort and practice offer cumulative benefits, whether or not you are able to hold a pose as long as you’d like on a particular day.”
- Count your blessings. Gratitude can make you feel more connected with life. Be grateful for the things in your life that make you feel good. Focus on the people and activities that make you happy.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Depression to Watch For
- Feelings of sadness or irritation
- Emptiness, hopelessness, or worthlessness
- Fatigue or decreased energy
- Trouble concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
- Irregular sleep patterns, either from not being able to sleep or sleeping too much
- Changes in your diet, such as either eating too much or not wanting to eat at all
- Thoughts of death or suicide (or suicide attempts)
- Aches, pains, cramps, headaches, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause that don’t get better with treatment
CreakyJoints is an online community of patients and families looking for arthritis resources and support. Founded in 1999, it now includes more than 100,000 arthritis patients and their family members. To learn more and to join for free, go to CreakyJoints.org.
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