Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease of the joints that causes severe pain and disability. Eventually there is damage to the cartilage and bone. In Western societies, over 1 percent of the population suffers from arthritis, the elderly are especially vulnerable.
Traditionally, arthritis has been thought to be more likely to occur in people who are depressed or repressed, perfectionist, and unable to express anger. Certainly it is true that people who suffer from arthritis are more likely to feel emotionally distraught, and various clinicians have argued that these feelings, in turn, tend to make things worse.
Many studies have shown that arthritis is associated with depression, anxiety, hostility, and introversion. Many cases show that people don’t like their jobs,but say nothing about it. They feel uncomfortable but hold in anger when confronted. Does this repressed pattern make sense in terms of what we know about the biography of arthritis?
The exact causes of arthritis are not fully understood, but the common types usually involve a problem with the body’s immune system. For some reason, the body goes out of control and attacks some of its cells. Given our current knowledge of the immune system, this physiological reaction seems like it would indeed be encouraged or even instigated in part by the emotional imbalance of repressed hostility or chronic anxiety.
Additional research is starting to fill in the precise physiological pieces of this puzzle. For example, one recent study made an intensive investigation of thirty-three women with rheumatoid arthritis. The researchers measured major challenges, minor daily hassles, and psychological distress among these women, then assessed the status of their immune systems through blood tests.
Sure enough, this study found direct effects of stress on immune system functioning in these arthritis patients.