Fight, flight and flares: How to cope with stress in a healthy way
Stress is one of the primary drivers of increased flares, pain and fatigue in people with chronic inflammatory conditions. So, reducing stress is really important. But this is tricky because everyone encounters stress in their life! Sometimes it’s because of big events you can’t control and sometimes it’s just everyday stressors at work and home. So what do you do? Helping you answer this question is why Healthy Coping is one of our 7 Pillars of Care.
At Motto, our goal is to help you learn to manage stress, and in turn significantly reduce flares and pain. Through working with a personal health coach and tracking your symptoms on our app, you learn to reliably recognize when you’re feeling overtaxed and how to cope with it through a toolkit of healthy strategies that are unique to you.
The link between stress, inflammation and pain
OK, let’s back up a minute. It’s not exactly common sense that an increase in stress can lead directly to an increase in joint or other kind of pain. How does that happen? This is quite complex. But here’s the simplest version.
Our body has two systems for balancing stress, and they pull in opposite directions:
The sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our stress or “fight, flight, freeze” response
The parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our “relax, rest and digest” functions
For short amounts of time, being in sympathetic mode is healthy and necessary. If you need to get out of the way of a moving car, the stress response is your greatest friend, helping you move fast and get to safety.
Long-term or chronic stress, however, is quite damaging. This is in part because when you are in fight-flight mode, your body releases stress hormones that trigger a cascading inflammatory response.
Stress increases inflammation.
Then, increased inflammation frequently leads to flares, pain and fatigue.
Like stress, inflammation is healthy when it’s needed, for example to fight off a cold, or heal an injury. But it’s unhealthy when it goes too far. In people with autoimmunity, the inflammation system is overly active and misdirected for reasons that are not entirely understood. It’s certainly not all due to stress. But, stress can play a big role in triggering flares, and making them worse.
Healthy Coping Toolkit
We can’t often control external events in our lives that cause stress. But we can make choices about how we relate to those events. That is the essence of healthy coping, and our approach is grounded in strategies that have been proven effective time and time again for improving the lives of those with chronic conditions: mindfulness-based stress reduction, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
Because no two people are alike, everyone’s toolkit for reducing stress is unique. One thing we help people reflect on is how to include “active” coping strategies in their lives. Active coping strategies encourage you to move towards things you value and that are pleasurable. Their name is a little misleading–it doesn’t mean you have to be doing a lot of activity. In fact, they can be quite relaxing, like meditation and breathing exercises. What they have in common is that you are choosing them with intentionality. Research shows that in the long term these are the ones that help most to improve mood, pain and fatigue.
Here are some examples of Active Coping Strategies:
Reaching out to your support network
Moving your body
Engaging in a creative practice, like drawing or dance
Doing breathing techniques
Actively problem solving
Actively reframing negative thoughts (skills-based therapies such as CBT and ACT are proven to be very helpful here!)
It can definitely be challenging to make the active choice in the short term–and it’s not always the right thing to do. Sometimes you just need to plop on the couch and tune out to Netflix! Only you know what’s right for you in the moment. We help you to find an approach that balances what you need in the short-term with what’s most effective for reducing pain and fatigue in the long term.