My joints have been much improved for the last few weeks; I’ve been utilising the time doing a bit of living, reveling in my again-found ability to walk/ dance / jump (well not jump) without pain. In between practicing standing on one leg, I’ve been generally trying to get back to some sense of normality, as far as is possible. It was this quest for normality that led me to a bar and a large glass of Malbec on Monday night. It was there that a good friend asked asked me if I thought that there was a link between my pain levels and stress.
I’m extremely fortunate that most of my close friends are sensitive to my condition. They unthinkingly carry the wine when it’s my round, they suggest activities that involve a lot of sitting during flare-ups, they come to my hole of a flat far more than I travel to their houses and, when appropriate, they laugh with me when I’m hobbling into door-frames and falling off kerbs. They aren’t unaffected by my condition, and I appreciate their on-going love and support. Even given this, I was slightly taken aback by the question; it wasn’t something I had considered before.
Having (under the influence of another glass of Malbec) deliberated this in some level of detail, I’d say that for me, there is a link. The link however, is not as simple as more stress = more pain.
Firstly, taking care of me and my joints is much easier when I’m not in pain. Sleeping is easier, eating well is easier (aside from making better choices when you’re happier, you actually have the energy to chop stuff), getting around is MUCH easier. Motivating myself to swim / walk / practice standing on one leg is significantly simpler when my base pain level is not acute.
Mentally, I also feel very different. In a flare-up my outlook becomes so narrow and life is defined by getting through the next thing I have to do; getting to work, getting the glass of water to take pills, getting through that meeting, I can’t think beyond the next hour. Activities and pastimes that are usually enjoyable just add to the list of things to survive and planning anything is not without complication. Invitations to festivals, nights out, trips to museums or even talks have to be responded to with some variation on ‘I’ll let you know in a few weeks’ or ‘I’m not up to that right now but maybe if I’m better’. The uncertainty is almost as exhausting as the pain itself. In short, being in pain makes it harder for me to do things that would help me not be in as much pain, or would make me less stressed, which is inherently rather stressful.
The flip side of this is that, when I’m stressed, the pain is harder to contextualise. Work was exceptionally busy in the worst week of my flare-up. I would have struggled with the workload were I not in pain, but with the added burden of discomfort and fatigue, at times it felt impossible. I was overwhelmed even when the pain itself was not overwhelming. The line between general stress and fatigue and stress and fatigue caused by my condition became ever more blurred, and life became more difficult to navigate. Think of it as a coin where both sides are heads and you’ve guessed tails, there is really nothing you can do.
Despite it all, I got through it. I got through it, and I am proud of having done so. The pain starts to alleviate, and with that stress levels lower. I subconsciously make the ‘right’ decisions more often, and life returns to what I’m used to. The links between pain and stress are multi-faceted and generally quite messy, but there are links and managing them both is vital. Standing on one leg every so often, going for that swim, sleeping lots and reminding myself that it’s okay not to be okay helps. In the meantime, another night in a pub and another glass of Malbec beckons.
Ps. I’ve looked beyond the next hour and booked a festival ticket. I’m going, even if it means enjoying Tame Impala from a seat at the food trucks. I’m going.