Man on couch with physician

Managing Mental Health with Rheumatic Disease

May 1, 2023 | Rheumatic Disease


Getting diagnosed with a rheumatic disease can be a very emotional experience.

For me, personally, during my experience living with rheumatoid arthritis, I’ve found it challenging to cope with the overload of information I was receiving, uncertainty about how to treat my disease and what all of this would mean for my future. And I know I’m not alone in experiencing that anxiety and apprehension.

If you are feeling depressed or anxious, know that you are also not alone. In fact, the Arthritis Foundation’s Live Yes Insights program recently found that 66% of people with arthritis have felt anxious in the last seven days, and 71% have felt depressed in the last week.

However, it’s important to know that depression and anxiety have been associated with poorer outcomes for people with rheumatoid arthritis. This means that taking care of our mental health is not only important for our mental wellbeing but also overall disease management.

So, what are some tips for managing mental health with rheumatic disease? Here is what has worked best for me:

Getting Professional Help from a Mental Health Therapist or Counselor

I first went to a psychologist to seek help with postpartum anxiety, but we also ended up working on my adjustment to being a mother with a chronic illness. My therapist taught me how to cope with the ups and downs of chronic illness. The experience of having a safe place to process my feelings once a week became something I looked forward to and valued immensely.

I have to admit that I had previously been a bit stubborn about therapy. Like many who live in chronic pain, at first, I wanted to “push through” on my own. However, once I admitted I needed help and saw a trained professional, my life changed for the better. Now, I am a huge proponent of therapy! You can ask your rheumatologist if they have any recommendations of therapists with expertise in helping people with chronic illnesses or ask friends, family, or fellow patients for recommendations.

Building a Coping Toolbox

Working with professionals, I built a “coping toolbox” that helps when I’m feeling down. Your own coping toolbox might be a physical box, or it might be more of a metaphorical one. My toolbox includes both- some physical tools like a weighted blanket, comforting smells and foods, guided meditations (on my phone), and affirmation cards that I can refer to when I am feeling down. It also includes mental tools such as “Catching ANTS (automatic negative thoughts),” which is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercise I learned in therapy. Having some go-to strategies helps me feel better prepared for coping with episodes of anxiety, stress or other mental health issues that may come my way.

Acceptance and Mindfulness

My favorite techniques in therapy come from ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a mindfulness-based approach. Mindfulness and acceptance have taught me how to accept whatever happens in the present moment rather than expending energy trying to change things I can’t. This allows me to move on to what’s still available in the present moment and has also helped me learn to cope with uncertainty.

Ultimately, managing mental health is an important part of living a full life with a rheumatic disease. Since we each have our own unique pasts and worldviews, what works for one person might not work for another – but that’s why individualized therapy can be so helpful. If you are struggling, please don’t hesitate to reach out to others for support.

Cheryl Crow, OTR/L

About the Author

Cheryl Crow, OTR/L

Cheryl Crow, OTR/L is an occupational therapist who lives with rheumatoid arthritis. She specializes in engaging patient education videos and other media on her Arthritis Life platform. Cheryl also serves as an adjunct faculty member at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, Washington. Cheryl is a member of the American College of Rheumatology’s Communications and Marketing Committee and can be found on Twitter at @realcc.

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