Your mental health toolkit

“The longer I work with patients with arthritis, the more I realize that mental health has a huge impact on how they interpret their levels of pain and the effect it has on their life, and generally how they cope with the disease long-term,” says Dr. Michael Starr, a rheumatologist in Montreal. “If we are just focused on the actual physical aspects of the disease, we may be missing the mark in delivering comprehensive treatment.”
 
Truth: Mental health (or emotional health, if you prefer) is a must-have when you’re dealing with arthritis, an often frustrating, unpredictable disease that can disrupt your regularly scheduled life. Good mental health doesn’t mean that you have a 24/7 sunny outlook, but it does mean you can feel, think and act in ways that help you enjoy your life and deal with its challenges. Read on for a closer look at some active coping strategies when you’re living with arthritis.
 

ID the emotion

Stress can be hard to recognize if it’s become a familiar part of your life. Step back and evaluate: is your stomach regularly upset? Are you clenching your teeth? Mindlessly eating a whole bag of chips? Grief is a common reaction to an arthritis diagnosis too, as many move through denial, bargaining, anger and sadness.
 

Manage that mood

This approach, known as “self-management,” is simply about taking ownership of your ability to manage your health issues. Some common techniques: build your confidence by listing your skills and good points, and brainstorm strategies that make you feel better about dealing with a flare. Connect with friends and community with a visit, email or phone call. “Patient support groups can be very helpful,” says Dr. Starr. And acknowledge your spiritual side too, whether that’s taking part in organized religion or a quiet walk in a beautiful place.
 

Feed your mood

There’s something to be said for junk food therapy…but eating a lot of foods high in refined sugars can actually worsen the symptoms of mood disorders like anxiety and depression. It’s fine to indulge once in a while, but in general, go for a varied healthy diet so you get a full dose of B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, selenium, zinc, iron and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which contribute to mental health. Ask your doctor if a multivitamin is a good idea too.
 

Drink well

Water is great for overall health, so make that your go-to beverage. Caffeine is ok, but if it’s disrupting your sleep, that’s going to have an impact on your mood. Alcohol is a depressant that slows down the parts of your brain that affect your thinking and behaviour, so pay attention to what’s the right amount for you. In general, two daily drinks for women, and three for men, are considered safe.
 

Work it out

Need a little motivation for a regular workout? Exercise boosts self-confidence, distracts you from whatever’s bugging you, gives you some social connections, releases feel-good brain chemicals, reduces immune system chemicals that can worsen depression and warms up your body temperature for a calming effect.
 

Quiet your mind

Consider adding meditation or breathing exercises to your day—research shows these tools help to ease pain, anxiety or depression. Progressive muscular relaxation, where you tighten and hold major muscle groups for 20 seconds, head to toe, can help you loosen up and calm down too.
 

Talk to a pro

If your low spirits persist for two weeks or more, or anxiety and worry are interfering with your daily life, relationships or job, it’s time to check in with a professional, such as a doctor, nurse, counselor or social worker to see what your next steps are. And if you have feelings of self-harm, contact a help line or your doctor immediately to seek help.
 
Want to learn more about positive mental health and well-being? Take a free online mini-course from the Arthritis Society here.