Managing the Stress of Fibromyalgia

When you first learned of your diagnosis, chances are you let out a huge sigh of relief. For many patients with fibromyalgia, it’s the first time someone in the healthcare community has said, “Yes, what you’re feeling is real, and yes, there’s something you can do about it.” And though managing stress is usually far from a top priority during this initial period, it’s important to be aware that anxiety will probably only increase as the reality — and unpredictability — of your new situation sinks in.

The stress that soon appears is caused in part by the reactions of people around you. As you’re scrambling to make sense of your diagnosis, friends and family often don’t seem as supportive as you would like them to be. And it’s probably not surprising. There’s still plenty of conflicting and confusing information about fibromyalgia around — that it is a bogus disease, that you are probably not ill at all, that it’s “all in your head.” And even when you know there’s strong evidence from reputable sources that fibromyalgia has legitimate biological roots, getting your spouse, kids, friends and coworkers on board can be tricky, especially when you look just fine to them. All this can create more stress on top of what you’re already experiencing from living with a difficult and painful medical condition.

Here are some surefire methods for getting a handle on the situation, and learning how to manage the anxiety without it causing damage to you.

Put Yourself First

It’s a stressful cycle. Often your pain, fatigue, and memory problems make it impossible for you to do what the people around you expect. You then feel guilty, helpless, and increasingly stressed out.

The bad news for people with fibromyalgia, says Daniel Clauw, M.D., rheumatologist and executive director of the University of Michigan’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, is that these negative feelings activate the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which can cause pain, fatigue, and memory problems even if you don’t have fibromyalgia! And this can lead to a downward spiral of inactivity and depression.

According to Dr. Clauw, it is not uncommon for people with chronic conditions like fibromyalgia to stop doing the things they enjoy because they’re so focused on simply surviving. Add to this the stress associated with having people around you not believe in your illness, or feeling that there’s nothing you can do to control your life and clearly you can start to feel even worse. So how do you gain some control? Dr. Clauw suggests using these four steps:

1. Recognize the connection. Know that any type of stress (emotional or physical) may be capable of triggering or worsening your fibromyalgia and stress symptoms.

2. Reset your expectations. Try to set realistic goals, based on how you feel right then, and avoid doing more than you can physically or emotionally handle.

3. Respond differently. “It’s not the external thing that’s stressful — it’s how you perceive it,” says Dr. Clauw. When you deliberately choose not to get too bothered when things don’t go the way you want them, it can make a huge difference in how you feel.

4. Research your illness. Know what to expect. Getting the facts about fibromyalgia can give you a sense of control. So pick up a book, talk one-on-one with your doctor, or join a support group in your area—it’s also a great way to meet others who literally feel your pain.

Help Them Help You

Your best bet in helping a friend or family member wrap their head around the many different aspects of fibromyalgia and stress is to take them to a support group meeting or educational lecture. In many cases, people in your life simply don’t know what they should (or could) be doing to support you, and may feel like they’re in dark when it comes to offering meaningful help. An added benefit of bringing a friend or family member along: They’ll hear about the value of different types of nondrug therapy, including mild exercise, self-management techniques, relaxation, and a positive attitude. These are the things you’re least likely to want to do or concentrate on when you’re feeling bad.

Armed with the facts about fibromyalgia, a family member knows that they can gently nudge you to keep up with self-care measures that can make you feel better over the long term. They can also encourage you to change those habits that will only make you feel worse.

Finally, try to be patient as your new support team learns about the illness and how to best help you manage it. Remember, there was a time when you too were new to life with fibromyalgia.