Taking care of body image when living with rheumatoid arthritis can be a challenge. It's hard to feel good when the rest of the body feels just the opposite.
When it comes to RA, the body is constantly attacking itself. It's easy to feel betrayed by something that is uncontrollable. Bones and muscles are sore from the body’s own immune system, and sometimes people can barely maneuver their fingers like they used to.
Facing your own body's limitations
Having rheumatoid arthritis forces you to face your own physical limits. You suffer every day from chronic pain, which affects the plans that you have for the future. Suddenly, you have to re-evaluate all the things you thought you used to be able to do and adjust your expectations for things you hope to accomplish in the future.
Body image is incredibly important for your self-esteem
It's sometimes easy to overlook how important self-perceived body image is too. When you're in pain and suffering from a chronic, disabling illness, you might get distracted by the medications and doctors appointments that litter your schedule every week. But we have to take the time to think about our self-esteem and how we feel. Our body image has a huge role to play in all of that.
It's been shown in multiple research studies that women who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis suffer from lower body image. That translates to overall lower self-esteem too. Besides feeling terrible and feeling chronic pain, many women are affected by rheumatoid arthritis in a way that actually changes how their outward appearance. Sometimes, rheumatoid can be so severe that there are obvious deformities in the hands or feet, or significant weight gain or weight loss. Some women may feel self-conscious about these changes, and consequently, suffer from poor self-esteem.
On top of that, nobody likes to have their chronic illness broadcasted for the public to see. Sometimes, it can feel that way when you have rheumatoid arthritis. On days when your pain is so bad that you can't walk without limping, you suddenly feel like all eyes are on you. It's not a comforting feeling to worry about total strangers staring at you and knowing that you are sick.
A cure for RA: Close, yet far
Even with all our modern day treatments and new disease-modifying drugs, we still have a long way to go before we can cure rheumatoid arthritis. Unfortunately, all these new medicines haven't done much to help with the body changes and worries that come with having rheumatoid arthritis. A study published in 2015 found that these new treatments didn't have much effect on body image in women who had rheumatoid arthritis. Many women still felt bad about their "crooked joints", "smallish legs", and "large body" when they were asked about their body image. Many women also suffered from feeling weak, having less body strength, and having less flexibility in their joints. All these factors contributed to these women feeling embarrassed to be in public.
Rheumatoid arthritis can take a blow on your body image, making people feel unattractive or embarrassed
A previous study also reported similar results. Women who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis often felt unattractive, especially if they had lived with the disease for quite some time. About a third of rheumatoid arthritis patients report feeling unattractive, and a similar proportion was also concerned about how they looked. Study participants who were newly diagnosed seemed to express similar concerns with those who had lived with the disease for a long time, and they reported worrying that they would develop the deformities that plague those who had suffered from rheumatoid for years.
Depression and anxiety are common for rheumatoid patients
When you have a poor perception of your own body and self, it can be very distressing emotionally. Many times, this constant negativity leads to depression and anxiety. People who have rheumatoid arthritis and suffer from social anxiety due to their appearance had a much higher risk of becoming depressed. One study actually found that rheumatoid patients with appearance-related social anxiety would tend to avoid social gatherings and were associated with diagnoses of depression. Another study also reported that having a physical disability or appearance disfigurement also predicted depression in rheumatoid patients. Because of these findings, it can be postulated that targeting concerns about body image can potentially help rheumatoid arthritis patients feel better about themselves and improve their quality of life.
Rheumatoid can cause disfigurements and disability
Why are rheumatoid patients so susceptible to poor body image? For one, having a chronic illness that is so painful and disfiguring can really influence your self-esteem. That's because we live in a world that holds a stigma against people who are sick, which can really make you feel like you're under a spotlight when you have rheumatoid arthritis. People who are disabled not only face their own physical limitations and challenges due to their disease, but also the challenges of feeling like their community sees them as inferior.
Women sometimes feel less beautiful when they suffer from rheumatoid arthritis
Women also have a harder time when they suffer physical disfigurements that make them look different from everyone else. The media today has an ideal "look" for what beauty is like. This can make many people feel like they just don't measure up. Women can then be left feeling not as feminine or beautiful.
Get help now if you are feeling particularly down about yourself
RA or not, if you have poor self-esteem or body image, it's important for you to seek help. Find someone to talk to, preferably a professional behavioral health provider such as a therapist or psychiatrist. If possible, seek out somebody who has a lot of experience working with adults who suffer from chronic illnesses that affect their physical condition.
Learning to love yourself again
There are also ways that you can also help yourself maintain a positive body image. Some tips include focusing on things that your body can do to help you feel better about yourself. Try to appreciate your whole body and your whole person, and resist your illness from defining who you are. Do you have hobbies? Special interests? What about family and friends? Personal opinions? These are all things that you can cherish in yourself that make you special, and nothing, not even a chronic illness, can take that away from you.
Set small, realistic goals that still match your values and hobbies
Some exercises you can do to help promote self-esteem include goal setting activities that are realistic. Don't overgeneralize and feel defeated. Make small goals that you know you can achieve. For example, if you use to be a marathon runner, and now can't bear to get down the block, try making your goal a nice, relaxing stroll at your favorite park.
Helping others can distract you from your own woes
Distractions work great too. Watching movies or volunteering are some examples of ways you can cope with your feelings of unworthiness or low self-esteem. Volunteering is really great because it takes away your negative focus on yourself and redirects it to something positive in which you're helping other people feel better too. This can give you a sense of accomplishment that you very much can use!
Accept the way you feel and the way you are
Lastly, try to accept the feelings that you do have. By pushing them away, you are only denying yourself the process of working through these emotions in a healthy way. Talk with your partner, friend, counselor, or other loved ones. Find support in your community to help you through this difficult time. A listening ear and a hug can go a long way!