Some people cope with adversity more easily than others. They have a positive outlook and resilience that seem to come naturally. But the fact is, resilience is something that anyone can develop.
Take Kat Elton. Diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at age 2, she has no memory of moving easily without pain. “Arthritis is tough,” says the 51-year-old. “It’s made me less physically hardy and less able to follow the career path I wanted to follow. It negatively affects every aspect of my life.”
In her early 30s, she had a debilitating flare and it seemed that arthritis would take over her life. At that point, she made a deliberate decision to find a way to live with it – to find resilience. “With it comes a lot of strength, an ability to find a different perspective when I’m in a downward spiral,” she says.
Elton, an occupational therapist in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, started writing books as a way to help herself and others, including A Resilient Life: Learning to Thrive, Not Just Survive with Rheumatoid Arthritis (2010, KatElton.com).
Resilience is the ability to adapt to difficult situations, like living with a chronic disease, and bounce back from them.
“Resilient people tend to have external and internal resources they can call upon to deal with adversity,” explains Afton Hassett, licensed clinical psychologist and associate research scientist in the University of Michigan Department of Anesthesiology. It is especially important for people with arthritis, who deal with unpredictability, loss of function and the inability to do activities they love.
“People who are diagnosed with a chronic illness are faced with constant challenges. Resilience is not about not having these [challenges] … but more so, knowing what to do when you do have them – knowing that you can face them,” adds Kristine Carandang Malixi, PhD. An occupational therapist and postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego, who researches young adults with rheumatic diseases, she has rheumatoid arthritis (RA) herself.
A Brighter Outlook
Research shows that resilience and an optimistic outlook have real effects on arthritis outcomes. A 2017 study in PLoS One showed that people with RA who have more optimism, hope and resilience feel less fatigue, one of the most debilitating arthritis symptoms. Fostering resilience also helps buffer the effects of pain in people with knee osteoarthritis (OA), especially if they were pessimistic to begin with, according to a 2018 study in The Clinical Journal of Pain. And people who are highly resilient work to have a better understanding of their disease and are more likely to stick with their treatments.
Fostering positive emotions and behaviors can make you feel better overall and ward off depression, which often coexists with arthritis. “There’s something about being happier, more optimistic … that is incredibly protective,” Hassett says. When she conducted a study of more than 20,000 Army soldiers, she found that those with low optimism were 35% more likely to experience back pain, joint pain and headaches than were those with high optimism.
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