Do you blame yourself for having rheumatoid arthritis? Feel guilty about burdening your loved ones? Read on for simple ways to ward off those nagging feelings.
A diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can bring on a flurry of emotions—shock, anger, sadness, denial and, above all, guilt. “Early on, it’s not uncommon for people to play the blame game,” says Allen Anandarajah, MBBS, associate professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York. You might feel guilty for thinking you brought it on yourself, for not being able to do things you once could or for being a burden on your loved ones.
But blaming yourself isn’t healthy. Guilt plays a role in depression, according to a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, and depression can intensify your pain and affect decisions about your health, such as keeping doctor appointments or taking medication. “Generally speaking, blaming oneself for things or being self-critical is not helpful for one’s mental well-being,” explains Wendy Lichtenthal, PhD, clinical psychologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
If guilt is getting the best of you, these steps can help you move beyond it:
Get the real RA facts. “The most important thing to understand is that RA isn’t due to something specific you may have done,” says Dr. Anandarajah. In fact, research points to genetics and environmental factors as the main contributors. The more you learn about your condition—whether it’s by asking your doctor questions or doing research on your own—the clearer it will become that you’re not to blame for your diagnosis.
Set realistic goals. An Ohio State University study showed that people who set goals for themselves—and reach them—feel more confident and find more meaning in their lives. The key? Make your goals attainable, says Dr. Anandarajah. “Most people set themselves such high targets, and if they don’t achieve them, it becomes a vicious, negative cycle.” So aim for 10 minutes of exercise a day, or aim to lose just 5 pounds instead of 50.
Take charge of your health. The better you manage your RA, the better you’ll feel. Not sure where to start? Dr. Anandarajah recommends beginning an exercise regimen. “It’s amazing how much exercise can help your mind and at the same time help your joints,” he says. “It will also keep your mind off your diagnosis.” Other ways to manage your health: Take your medications on time, get adequate sleep and maintain a healthy diet.
Connect with others who have RA. Who better to lift your sprits than people in the same situation? Join a local support group or search for one online. Expressing your thoughts to those who “get it” can help ease those pesky feelings of self-blame, especially if you were recently diagnosed. Don’t want to speak up? Just observing what people in similar situations have to say can help. Facebook and Twitter are also a great way to interact with others (good places to start are Facebook.com/ArthritisHealthMonitor and Twitter.com/ArthritisHM).
Put a new spin on your situation. Feel you’re a burden to your loved ones because you need a hand with certain activities you once could manage, such as loading the dishwasher or making the bed? Dr. Lichtenthal recommends looking at it this way: “Sometimes it’s helpful to think about how good it feels to help others in need. By allowing your loved ones to assist you, you’re giving them the opportunity to experience those same feelings.”
Pump up your confidence. “Practice positive thinking, enforce that you can get better and believe in yourself,” says Dr. Anandarajah. One way to do this: Make a list of your most positive traits—your big heart, your perfect driving record, your great skin—and read it every day. It will remind you that you’re still the same person you were before RA.
See a mind-changing expert. If you just can’t shake the guilt, Dr. Anandarajah recommends making an appointment with a therapist who practices cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). A mental health technique used to change thought patterns, CBT has been shown to help alter negative thoughts and improve pain in RA patients, according to a study published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. Ask your rheumatologist whether a CBT specialist is right for you.