Can Positive Psychology Help with Managing RA?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Practicing positive psychology (PP) may be useful if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It focuses on how you can live to your fullest by embracing your personal strengths and focusing on concepts like gratitude, optimism, and purpose.

Researchers have linked practicing these and other PP themes to improved mental well-being among people with RA and other chronic conditions. It may even reduce symptoms such as pain and fatigue or help you manage them better.

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You can connect with a mental health professional who can help you introduce PP into your life, or you can use other resources to guide your journey.

Positive psychology (PP)

PP is a relatively new type of mental health theory that developed in the 2000s. It measures mental well-being through concepts like optimism, hope, and purpose. It links the positive aspects of an individual’s life to their ability to thrive.

PP links the following with well-being:

  • embracing personal strengths
  • expressing gratitude
  • finding purpose in your life
  • setting and achieving goals
  • fostering close social relationships
  • having compassion
  • developing resilience (recovering quickly from tough situations)
  • engaging in meaningful activities
  • living in the moment
  • practicing altruism (selfless concern for others)

These practices can be done together with other mental health interventions led by a psychotherapist, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

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Or you may want to practice them on your own. For example, you could keep a gratitude journal where you list one thing you’re grateful for every day.

Positive psychotherapy is a method that a therapist might use with you to practice PP. Some of the techniques in this method include:

  • listing your personal strengths
  • focusing on a few positive things every day
  • expressing gratitude to others

Another PP practice is reframing negative thoughts into positive ones, or finding balance in the negative and positive. If you have RA, you can do this by:

  • speaking positively to yourself
  • reframing your mindset to focus on what you can do versus what you can’t do
  • celebrating completed tasks or challenges you’ve overcome

RA and PP

Those with RA may benefit from PP for many reasons. PP can counteract RA symptoms like depression, anxiety, pain, and fatigue. It may also help you stick to your RA management plan so you feel healthier overall.

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Several studies show the benefits of PP among people who experience chronic pain and, more specifically, RA.

Mental health, RA, and PP

RA increases the risk of experiencing depression and anxiety, according to 2017 research.

Depression affects your outlook on life. Among other symptoms, you may:

  • feel sad or hopeless
  • lose interest in parts of your life
  • gain or lose weight
  • sleep more or less than is recommended
  • experience a lack of energy

Anxiety may manifest as stress. You could feel tense, worried, or irritable.

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These mental health conditions may worsen or trigger other RA symptoms.

The same 2017 study found that stress and mood are independent factors for the relapse of RA symptoms. It can result in more inflammation, pain, stiffness, and fatigue.

One review and one study, both from 2018, suggest that PP may be able help improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, especially when combined with other psychotherapy techniques like CBT.

Chronic health conditions and PP

PP interventions can increase well-being and reduce distress in people with diagnosed health conditions, according to 2018 research.

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And a 2016 study concluded that people with chronic health conditions who have greater optimism and hope engage in behaviors that better support their health.

These mentalities can be fostered with PP.

In turn, health-supporting behaviors can help manage a chronic condition like RA. Managing RA involves:

  • adhering to medication plans
  • seeing your doctor regularly
  • engaging in healthy lifestyle habits
Chronic pain and PP

A 2020 study looked at the connections between chronic pain, self-efficacy, and interventions to increase well-being. It concluded that PP and CBT can help people better manage chronic pain.

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PP, in combination with therapies like CBT and medication, may help someone experiencing chronic pain thrive, concludes a commentary from mental health professionals.

PP interventions can promote an individual’s:

  • strengths
  • social life
  • overall sense of purpose
Fatigue and PP

Social support and PP practices aimed at hope, optimism, and resilience could help reduce fatigue in people with RA, concluded a 2017 study. These qualities appear to help address symptoms like fatigue.

Measuring well-being in RA patients

One 2015 study found that a measure called the subjective vitality scale effectively estimated the well-being of people with RA. Doctors and other medical professionals can use this scale to evaluate how someone with RA is doing emotionally.

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Using a scale like this could encourage doctors to highlight PP practices with their patients to improve their well-being.

People who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression should contact a mental health professional, who can assess symptoms and diagnose and treat these conditions.

Where to find help for emotional needs

PP may sound like a welcome practice if you have RA, but you may need professional help to guide you into this way of thinking. Talk with your doctor about your interest in PP. They may be able to recommend mental health professionals who focus on this theory.

Or, you can find resources about PP that suggest ways to implement it in your life. Here are a few resources to get you started:

  • University of New Hampshire, Positive Psychology Strategies for Increased Happiness
  • University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, Readings and Videos
  • University of California at Berkeley, Workplace Positive Psychology Exercises: An Evidence-Based Guide to Implementation
  • University of Illinois, Positive Psychology Practices
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Make sure you also stay on top of your RA symptoms as well as you can in order to avoid unnecessary pain and discomfort. This can help keep your mental health on track.

You can do this by:

  • meeting with your doctor regularly
  • taking prescribed medications
  • exercising as you are able
  • eating a balanced, nutrient-filled diet
  • getting enough sleep

Keeping up with all aspects of your RA management plan will make it easier to adopt new coping strategies, such as those based in PP, and improve your well- being.

The takeaway

PP focuses on concepts like gratitude, optimism, and purpose.

If you have RA, it may improve your mental well-being and help you live to your fullest. It may even help you to better manage symptoms like pain and fatigue.

To learn PP tactics, you can either work with a mental health professional or read about the techniques from reliable sources in books and online.

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