New research about the influence of stress on RA disease activity

New research about the influence of stress on RA disease activity

Have you ever felt or suspected that stress negatively impacts your rheumatoid arthritis? Then you are definitely on the right track. Studies presented during this year’s EULAR Congress really emphasize that stress can indeed lead to increased inflammation and flare-ups. 

The European Congress of Rheumatology is held by EULAR (European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology) once a year and has become a central platform for the exchange of knowledge on rheumatic diseases. This year’s edition included presentations regarding new discoveries about the relationship between stress and rheumatoid arthritis. Elsa sums up three of the presented studies on the topic. 

Stress from a year back can impact you today

The fact that stress is a part of life is hardly a surprise. And stress in itself does not necessarily have to be negative—it can get us to focus and take in a little more when needed. The danger arises when we are stressed for sustained periods without a chance to recover from it.

Researchers in Pakistan studied 507 individuals with RA. 36 percent of the participants had experienced long periods of significant stress over the past year due to events such as divorce, financial difficulties, or the death or illness of a close relative.

Researchers found that those individuals who experienced significant stress—even as far back as a year—also had a more active disease today. One of the conclusions is that different kinds of stress management can be an important adjunct to traditional drug treatment. (1)

Our home is a common cause of high stress levels

Our home is a place where we need to be able to recover from external stressors and wind down. But the previously mentioned research group in Pakistan asked the same participants to estimate how stressed they felt at home.

As many as 48 percent stated that they felt moderately or severely stressed in their own homes. The rest experienced little to no stress. When the participants’ stress levels were linked to their disease, it was found that those who experienced higher levels of stress also had, to a greater extent, more disease activity and more affected joints. 

These results also highlight the importance of having strategies to manage the stress we are all affected by every once in a while, and in addition, that healthcare needs to help out to identify those stressors impacting an individual and how their personal circumstances can be improved. (1)

The association between social support and chance of remission

We all know that we need people around us who we can rely on and feel safe with. But can this affect symptoms of RA too? A Swedish study that was also presented at the EULAR Congress has investigated if a lack of social support can impact an individual’s RA. 

The absence of those social ties meaning you have someone who can support you when you need it was found to decrease the chance for remission, in other words, that the symptoms subside or disappear for the time being. This connection was seen in both the long and short term and was more pronounced amongst women. 

Those who were especially susceptible to this type of stress were individuals that also run other risks for disease due to smoking, being overweight or sedentary. (1)

So—what can we do?

The point is not to make you feel more stressed after reading about these new discoveries. Rather, the idea is that we have the possibility to do something about the things we are aware of. And there are actions we can take to reduce our stress levels. The strategies mentioned here have a proven stress-reducing effect.  

  • Meditating might sound difficult and perhaps daunting, but it does not have to be complicated. It’s about spending a few minutes just breathing and focusing on the present. Such exercises can actually lead to physical changes in the brain’s stress center. If you do not know where to start, find an app or an audiobook to get going. 

  • Step out into nature. As we wrote in the last blog post, spending two hours outside per week has a positive impact on your health, and that even applies when you split up these hours into multiple, shorter occasions. 

  • Try to get perspective on your life’s difficulties. Seek professional help for therapy or try something such as writing a gratitude journal to appreciate positive events you experienced during the day. Read more about this in Train your brain to see the good things in life. (2)

Sources:

  1. Stress and Rheumatoid Arthritis: News You Can Use From EULAR 2021

  2. The Science Behind Stress and Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

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