Health Under pressure Too much stress can take its toll on our minds and bodies heres how to tackle it early on Words: Victoria Goldman I ts natural to feel stressed from time to time. You may find a little stress is good for you, pushing you to do something you wouldnt usually do, or even to try something new. But if youre under too much pressure, you may find it hard to cope. And if you dont tackle your rising stress levels early on, you could make your arthritis symptoms worse. Dealing with stress 10 ways to lower stress levels When youre feeling stressed, your body releases hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare you for the fight or flight response. Your muscles, heart and lungs work harder, you have more energy, and your mind seems more alert. This should last for only a short while, pushing you through that situation, but stress doesnt always your go away. Everyone reacts differently to stress. You may be more worried, anxious, irritable and tearful than usual. Stress can cause physical symptoms, too, such as tiredness, palpitations (more noticeable or faster heartbeats), headaches, an upset tummy, chest pains and grinding your teeth. Many people sink into unhealthy habits they drink more alcohol, eat more junk food and dont sleep well. Constant stress may increase your risk of certain long-term health conditions (such as irritable bowel syndrome and high blood pressure) and can lead to anxiety and depression. Constant stress may increase your risk of certain long-term health conditions and can lead to anxiety and depression Stress and arthritis There is evidence that stress can bring on painful flares of arthritis by triggering inflammation in the body When youre under stress, tense muscles can affect your joints and mobility. In 2020, research at the University Hospital in Southampton found that stress can stop the immune system working properly in people with rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic inflammatory conditions can affect how well the central nervous system works. Many people in the study reported that their arthritis affected their mental health, making them tearful, irritable and frustrated. Stress and arthritis flares are intertwined, says Dr Nisa Aslam, a GP in Tower Hamlets, London. There is evidence that stress can bring on painful flares of arthritis Stress affects my by triggering inflammation in the body. This can become a immune system vicious cycle where the pain and fatigue brought on by the flare cause further stress. Stress may also worsen the intensity of the pain so its harder to control. Not only can this affect daily activities, but it can also contribute to overall poor physical and mental health. Making a change If lifes demands are getting too much, making some lifestyle changes may help. In 2021, researchers at the University of Birmingham found that being more active (including walking and doing household chores) can reduce fatigue and stress in people with rheumatoid arthritis. A lack of exercise and weight gain are by-products of chronic pain and amplify the mental health issues that patients have to endure, explains James Scrimshaw, chiropractor at CURA Clinical Consultancy in Bristol. On the flip side, exercise, a healthy weight and a generally happy mindset have been proven to reduce patients pain scores. There are plenty of other simple ways to ease stress take a look at our tips above for easy ways to make lifestyle changes. 10 ways to lower your stress levels 1 Plan and prioritise improve your time management 2 Relax more often try some breathing exercises, meditation or mindfulness 3 Get a good nights sleep have a regular bedtime routine, reduce screen time in the evenings and cut down on caffeine 4 Find some me time do something you enjoy, such as reading, walking, or arts and crafts 5 Eat a healthy diet, with regular mealtimes, and drink six to eight glasses of water a day 6 Be more active gentle exercise will help to ease muscle tension and joint pain. Visit our website for more info at versusarthritis.org 7 Cut down on smoking and drinking 8 Talk to your family and friends about why youre feeling stressed 9 Call the Versus Arthritis helpline (0800 5200 520), join a local support group or get involved with our online community at community. versusarthritis.org 10 If youre really finding it hard to cope, speak to your GP or find a local counsellor Stress affects my immune system Sinead Fitzgibbon, of Ascot, Berkshire, says stress stops her sleeping well, which makes her rheumatoid arthritis worse. Sleep is the key to managing my symptoms, or everything flares up, she says. Missing just one hour of my usual eight hours makes a big difference. When Im stressed, I have a lot of nervous energy, which means Im not resting as much as usual. Stress affects my immune system, which goes into overdrive and my glands pop up. My joints hurt, I feel sluggish and I forget to eat. So I have to make sure I look after myself. As soon as stress kicks in, I take a few days off work and go to bed, to give myself time and space to calm down. I cut everything else out. Its a bit extreme, but it works for me.