Stress has been around for centuries. In fact, it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling humans and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Living with a chronic or painful condition can cause a great deal of stress – relationship stress, financial pressures and the day-to-day realities of fatigue and pain.  


Then there’s the day-to-day stress of, well, just ‘life’! That includes challenges thrown our way in our private lives (such as having to care for an elderly parent or worrying about a troubled teenage son or daughter) but, also, the uncertainty within the larger world (with global media enforcing the concept that there’s a lot to be anxious about). Heap on the extra pressures we all face during Christmas and our bodies are sure to be regularly engaging in ‘the stress response’.


The Price we Pay

The problem with this is that any long-term activation of the stress response system can disrupt almost all the body's processes. This puts you at higher risk of an array of health problems. For those living with arthritis, this is a major issue, as it is counterproductive to the better quality of life that we are striving for, despite our condition. Sleep disruption and weight gain are two nasty spin-offs from stress, but they are the last things that someone with arthritis needs to heap onto their already full plate, particularly since we know that both contribute to the worsening of the symptoms related to arthritis.  


But it’s not about banishing stress altogether – instead, it’s learning how to deal with it better that really counts. And, as you’ll see below, it’s even about viewing stress in a new way in order to counter its potential effects, along with some other tips to help dial down the stress this Christmas – our minds and our bodies will thank us for it.  


Our 10 Top Tips for Reducing Stress

  1. Fight the stress response with a relaxation response: Start to engage your relaxation response, which helps to slow down breathing, reduce blood pressure and lower blood sugar circulating in the body. Do this through deep breathing, yoga or tai chi, or meditation – try the Calm app, or the deep breathing involved in The Wim Hof Method to make a real change to your day-to-breathing and to reduce the stress hormones circulating your body. If you work on the physical side of stress, the mental will take the cue – in other words, show your body how to relax and your brain will believe that you are relaxed.  

  1. Get moving more often: We all know people who deal with stress by engaging in intense exercise, such as iron man competitions or triathlons. But the truth is that exercise doesn’t need to be intense to be beneficial in dealing with the side-effects of stress. Even moderate walking will have a positive impact, in that it releases the ‘feel good’ hormones, called endorphins. Also, by essentially ‘re-routing’ your stress response, into something positive such as exercise (rather than sitting on the couch and ruminating further), your experience of stress is likely to be transformed. If you choose to do this in a natural environment, such as in a forest, or near a body of water, the research shows the effect is even stronger. The key is consistency – do it but do it regularly (such as 30 minutes x 5 days a week) to notice the difference. If you’d like to learn more about how to fit regular activity into your life, start with one of our free online or in-person courses: Be Active with Arthritis. 

  1. Engage social support: Friends and family (or even co-workers) all provide us with a social network that has been shown, through research studies, to positively impact our life expectancy. Reaching out to others or confiding in them can help us to sustain ourselves during times of chronic stress. Consider calling our helpline (0818 252 846) to chat to someone who understands what it’s like to live with arthritis and all the challenges that entails.  

  1. Make time for hobbies: We know that when someone engages in a hobby, whether that’s a sport or a creative pursuit, they can achieve a state of total immersion and relaxation known as ‘flow’. This not only helps to distract us from our worries and stressors, but also helps us with emotional regulation, and ultimately leads to greater happiness and life satisfaction. If you haven’t had time for a hobby up until now, start today by reading our blog all about picking up a new hobby here. 

  1. Try to view stress in a new way: Some research suggests that if we focus on stress as being detrimental it is more likely to be harmful. Accept that there is (and almost always will be) a certain amount of stress in your life, but pivot your view of stress to viewing it as part and parcel of life, rather than something that will damage you in the long term (interestingly, by viewing it more positively, your body will react differently and the impact will reduce). Check out this Ted Talk. 

  1. Check in on your diet: We all go between times where our diet is good, and times where we let things slip. The key is always getting back on track. The general advice is to follow a healthy diet, particularly one that will help you to maintain a healthy body weight since overweight and obesity put an extra burden on your weight bearing joints. But what we eat can also massively impact our mood. Although we’re predisposed to reaching for sugar and salty snacks when stressed, the best thing we can do is to begin replacing sugary snacks for healthy ones, such as fruit, nuts, homemade flapjacks and popcorn. Also, eating every 3-4 hours (ideally something comprised of a good source of protein plus fruit/veg) will help stabilise our blood sugars, leading to reduced cravings for the foods that won’t help our mood.  

  1. Reduce (or eliminatealcohol, cigarettes/vapes/caffeine): Like turning to junk food when stressed, many people turn to coffee, alcohol and/or cigarettes when anxious or stressed. But the fact is that, despite people thinking they are helping themselves, these things lead to more anxiety, rather than less, since they are ‘anxiogenic’, meaning they cause more anxiety. Nicotine causes our heart rate and blood pressure to spike, and then there are the withdrawal symptoms like irritability, poor concentration, and cravings that occur in times in between cigarettes or vapes. With alcohol and nicotine, don’t try to go cold turkey alone but, instead, get the support you need. Visit Drink Aware and/or sign up to a QUIT plan here. If you don’t want to give up, then even consider cutting down, particularly during times of stress, when we know these things don’t actually help, and may even worsen your symptoms of stress.  

  1. Listen to music, soak in Epsom salts and/or spend time with animals: We know that listening to music calms the activity in our brains because fewer neurons fire in the part of your brain that responds to fear (the amygdala). Music is also useful as a distraction technique if you are in pain. A nice way to listen to music is through headphones, or when relaxing in the bath (tip: add Epsom salts for even deeper relaxation as these salts are full of magnesium, which has been shown to help calm the nervous system). With regards to animals, research has shown that when you spend time with your dog or cat, you release the hormone called oxytocin, otherwise known as ‘the love (or hug) hormone’.

  2. Think about volunteering or giving: Did you know that spending time helping others benefits the volunteer as much (or some say, possibly more) than the person they’re helping? That’s because giving your time or money to others (whether that’s volunteering at a nursing home or at the local sports club or giving regularly to a charity of your choice) brings with it a massive feelgood factor. In fact, our bodies tend to produce less cortisol and, instead, release happy, feelgood hormones (like oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins) when we show kindness to others – this is known as the ‘helpers high’. Volunteering has also been shown to increase a sense of purpose and appreciation. Then there’s the huge sense of community, social support and fulfilment that can come from contributing your time and effort to something bigger than yourself. If you are interested in volunteering on our helpline, contact us at: [email protected] but, if you’re short on time, consider giving financially through our Giving Tuesday campaign.

  1. Start a regular gratitude practice: When we are stressed, our brains normally tend to go for the ‘negative bias’ – this essentially means that we look for evidence of the bad things in our lives, rather than the positives. This is why practising gratitude, either by noting it in your head each morning (such as when you’re showering or driving your car), or by journalling daily, can be particularly good for helping to combat stress – it essentially interrupts our negative thoughts and gives us an alternative way to view things. We experience gratitude when we shift our focus from what we don’t have to what we do have. Ask yourself, what are the three things that I’m grateful for right now? It can be people in your life, or it can be as simple as the nice cup of coffee in your hands, or the blue sky above your head. The key is to practice gratitude daily, and particularly during stressful times.  

Wishing you a very happy (and stress free) December ahead!