I posted this blog on my own site today. I took me a while to frame what I wanted to say, but I think I finally got it right. I'd like to share my thoughts with this community. If the links don't show up, just paste the names of the articles and search that way (that is, if you want to check out these sources).
Lupus and Stress
I think everybody has heard the expression, "Stress kills". Most of us accept the truth of this because it seems to make sense and we can probably think of someone we know who has been under stress and then suffered an illness or even death. It turns out that science supports our gut instinct on this issue: research suggests that stress can, indeed, make us sick and increase our chances of dying prematurely.
A 2010 paper published in "Experimental Biology and Medicine" ("Introduction: The co-morbidity of stress and disease: effects of chronic stress on metabolism, cardiovascular disease and behavior") outlines the relationship between chronic stress and disease development. The authors of this paper do not cite one study to support their thesis; what they do is draw upon a growing body of evidence which indicates, they say, that stress is a "key contributor" to heart disease and gastrointestinal disease. They also point out the relationship (which is not hard to understand) between stress and the development of psychological disorders.
When it comes to lupus, the role of stress becomes even more pronounced. Anyone faced with a chronic, incurable disease obviously has to learn to deal with this reality. In the case of lupus, it seems the tools for dealing with stress are compromised by the disease process itself. Even in patients who do not have neuropsychiatric lupus (and about 40% of us do express this symptom), problem-solving skills are often diminished. There is convincing research which suggests this.
An article published by the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center ("Major Life Stress, Coping Styles, and Social Support in Relation to Psychological Distress in Patients with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus") comes to the conclusion that SLE patients tend to have "poorer coping skills compared to...RA and control subjects". This article examines the way in which different people approach difficult issues. People with lupus, as a group, more often use "disengagement" when faced with a problem. "Disengagement" means, not solving a problem but avoiding it.
Another article ("Stress as a Predictor of Cognitive Functioning in Lupus") published by the University of Granada in 2006, has implications for the harm the lack of engagement can lead to. The Granada paper details the physical and mental price that stress exacts from lupus patients: "Hypothetically", the authors state, "stress maintained in a chronic way may not only produce a worsening of the lupus symptomatology, but it can also produce negative cognitive consequences...". So "disengaging", or avoiding a problem, is likely not in our best interest--because more stress means more disease, and an unsolved problem will bring us more stress.
Many years ago, when lupus was very active in my life and I was not handling it well, my doctor insisted I consult a mental health professional. It was the guidance of this professional, an objective third party, which helped me to find my way to better health. She saw that my disease was not being controlled adequately and she found a rheumatologist who could address that. She learned, along with me, to identify the signs of an impending flare--so I'd be able to treat proactively, before things got out of control. And whenever a problem popped up in my life, I discussed it with her and she gently led me through my various options.
Some people think it's embarrassing to admit they've dealt with mental health issues. Some people think it's embarrassing to ask for that kind of help at all. So I'm open about my personal experience: I don't believe embarrassment should stand in the way of good health.
Before lupus came into my life I was a teacher, a mother, a wife. I was as busy as anyone could be and believed I was on an upward career trajectory. Lupus put a stop to everything, and maybe that would have been the end of my story if I hadn't received guidance.
Today I'm doing what I want, once again. Within the context of my disease, I lead a full life (even though it's true I can't go out in the sun, work a regular job, eat a full diet and stay off prednisone for very long). I'm absolutely certain that, on my own, I would not have had the coping skills to forge the path I am now on. What I wish for everyone who has lupus (and other diseases, as well) is that they seek help, as I did, and they find a way to live as full a life as their physical circumstances allow.