building resilience and coping with arthritis

How to Build Resilience and Bounce Back Into Life

Building resilience is key to helping yourself cope with adversity – and feel better.


Diana Reyers knows a thing or two about bouncing back and building resilience. After being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in 2005, the Ontario mother of two couldn’t keep up with her 50-hour-a-week management job. She went back to school to pursue a less stressful, more satisfying career as an esthetician, and even opened her own spa in 2008. But she had to give up that career, too, when she developed painful osteoarthritis (OA) in her thumbs. “I was left with little money and an immense feeling of being unfulfilled,” she recalls.

One day in 2010, during an especially bad neck spasm, she says, “I lay down to rest and had an epiphany: I was not going to beat arthritis, but I could live with it in a better way.”

She worked with her rheumatologist to find an effective medication combination and took yet another professional turn, training to become a life coach. Now, she says, she has an “incredibly rewarding” career that allows her time to take care of herself and her family.

What makes people like Reyers not just survive, but actually thrive in the face of obstacles? In a word: resilience.

Resilience, says psychologist Robert Wicks, is “the ability to learn from and rebound from challenges, adversity and stress.”

When you’re resilient, you’re able to keep going mentally and physically in spite of the pain, grief and anger that may come with adversity. You can look beyond the problem and draw on constructive coping mechanisms like optimism, acceptance and faith that you can change things and get past setbacks without giving in to hopelessness and frustration.

Developing resilience is especially important for those with arthritis, adds Wicks, a professor at Loyola College in Maryland and author of Bounce: Living the Resilient Life (Oxford, 2009). “Chronic disease poses regular, and often immense, psychological and physical setbacks,” he says. “You have to be able to cope with them in order to care for yourself. Resilience is the difference between making arthritis one part of your story and [allowing it to be] your entire narrative."

A Remedy for Pain

A body of research shows that people who demonstrate higher levels of resilience tend to recover faster, manage pain better, be less susceptible to chronic depression and anxiety, and have better overall health outcomes than those who are less resilient. For example, a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology looked at 300 women with RA and found that those who scored high on resilience questionnaires reported less RA-related pain than those with lower scores.

A study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine looked at 275 patients with knee OA and found that those who exhibited the most resilience-related characteristics were also the most likely to show self-efficacy – for example, taking the initiative to see a physician or to exercise regularly. They also reported less pain and an increased ability to perform everyday activities compared with less resilient study participants.

“Resilience impacts thoughts and, therefore, behavior in profound ways,” says Chicago-based psychologist and physical therapist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD. “A less resilient person experiencing a flare might think, ‘Well, I can’t exercise,’ or ‘My doctor isn’t helping me enough.’ A resilient individual thinks, ‘How can I improve my situation? What can I do to get moving again?’”

Further, resilience requires tapping into a set of coping skills that reduce stress levels and the stress hormones that are known to exacerbate arthritis pain.

Build Your Resilience

Experts agree that some people seem to be naturally resilient, but a wealth of research shows others can develop it and bolster their buoyancy. “It’s a skill that can be developed and honed over time,” says Wicks.

Try these strategies to build your resilience – and bounce back better.

Focus on the upside. Studies show that optimism is part and parcel of resilience; the more hopeful you feel, the more resilient you’ll be. Boosting your optimism requires you to “reframe your experience so that you’re aware of the negative, but focused on the positive,” says David Hellerstein, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. Ask yourself three questions, he says: “Does this provide new opportunities? Can I look at this differently? Is there any good to come out of it?" 

Learn from experience. If you have a chronic disease, you’re already more resilient than you probably give yourself credit for, says Patricia O’Gorman, PhD, a psychologist in Albany, N.Y., who specializes in trauma and resilience. “When you’re dealing with a new setback, that’s the time to ask yourself, ‘How have I dealt with problems in the past? What worked, and which strategies should I skip this time?’” When pianist Lisa Emrich, 43, was diagnosed with RA she took this approach, drawing on her experience with multiple sclerosis. “I saw a doctor right away, kept getting tested until I had a diagnosis, and worked with my physician to formulate a plan – in this case, medication plus occupational therapy, which ultimately allowed me to return to playing the piano,” she says.

Expand your knowledge. Ask lots of questions when you’re at the rheumatologist’s office, and regularly read up on arthritis and health. “Learning boosts resilience,” says Dr. Hellerstein. “The more you learn about how best to live with your condition, the more control you have. Control as well as resourcefulness give you the confidence to move forward in the face of adversity.”

Find your bliss. Make time to find and do things you love. As resilience researchers at the University of California, Riverside, wrote for the Handbook of Adult Resilience (Guilford Press, 2010), “emotions like joy, satisfaction and interest … provide individuals with a sort of ‘psychological time-out’ in the face of stress and help them perceive the ‘big picture’ of their situations." 

Get moving. In addition to its physical benefits, exercise “decreases anxiety and depression, improves sleep and increases the levels of mood-improving chemicals, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that improves brain health,” says Dr. Hellerstein. Studies have shown that physically fit people don’t experience the same spikes in blood pressure and stress hormones such as cortisol in stressful situations.

Seek support. Support systems are a linchpin of resilience. “If you don’t feel like you have to go it alone, it’s much easier to push forward when the going gets tough,” explains Wicks. Not used to asking for assistance? “Most people have a hard time with that,” points out O’Gorman. “Realize that it’s not a sign of weakness. Chances are, your loved ones want to help and are simply waiting for you to ask.”

Count your blessings. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside reviewed 225 studies and found that individuals who expressed gratitude or wrote in a gratitude journal at least several times a week felt more connected, autonomous, optimistic and happy – traits that contribute to resilience. “Gratitude makes you think about what you have, which, in turn, keeps you from focusing on what you don’t have,” says Wicks. “When you feel blessed, it’s easier to keep going – no matter what you’re up against.”

Reyers believes it. She is thankful for not only her family, friends and great new career, but also the lessons she’s learned from RA. “I look at RA as a gift that has taught me to slow down and enjoy each day,” she says. “Because of it, I have a more balanced life and existence.”

The Arthritis Foundation is the leading organization 
providing support and funding research to improve the 
lives of individuals with arthritis. You can help!