Seeking Immunity: Stress Response and Joint Decay

Dear Fellow Joint Pain Sufferers:

About 12 years ago I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis, abbreviated RA. When it’s not annoying or painful I find the condition to be quite fascinating. RA is an autoimmune disease, a condition where my own immune system has somehow determined that the tissue in my joints is an enemy of my body, so it unleashes its disease-fighting strength against healthy tissue. What makes my body decide that parts of itself must be attacked? Rheumatological research continues to seek an answer to that question.

I’ve been quite fortunate to have avoided the kind of flare-up that merits the use of a class of medications called biologics; these suppress the immune system more generally, dialing back the body’s disease-fighting capacity to a sweet spot where it can still attack real diseases while leaving healthy tissue unchallenged. So far, I have been able to manage my symptoms with over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen.

I share this not because I’m looking for sympathy, but because the management of my autoimmune disease has taught me some valuable lessons regarding systemic stress-response to the world’s adversity.

I fear our culture is in the throes of a massive autoimmune crisis. Some portions of our body politic are responding to other parts as if they are the enemy, unleashing disease-fighting energy to destroy otherwise healthy tissue. What makes this metaphor helpful is how indiscriminate the tactics are. It has nothing to do with right or left-leaning politics and everything to do with identifying parts of the body as enemies that must be eradicated, sapping energy from the system’s ability to accomplish even mundane daily tasks.

Even more salient is how an autoimmune condition can lie dormant, almost passive in the system, until triggered by stress-response. There are times when I am completely unaware of RA’s residence in my body, creating the illusion that the condition has been eradicated, only to be reminded of its presence when I fail to manage my own stress-response. My mind tricks me into believing RA is no longer a problem; then without warning it attacks again, reminding me it never left.

The other day I watched a video of a George Carlin routine about the absurdity of abortion opposition. (I am not providing a direct link, it’s George Carlin, I am your pastor, you’re going to have to search for profanity without my help.) What captured my attention was how current this two-decade old rant sounded. The hostilities around this issue were silent for many years, and some of us naively thought these battles were long past. But as we are discovering, they merely laid dormant until our systemic immune system perceived stress, and we’re back at it again, tearing apart our own connective tissue over the perception that a woman’s choice is the enemy and must be eradicated. It turns out we as a body politic were never cured; we were merely managing our stress better.

Which gets me back to the most important thing I have learned from RA. Stress is not about my environment; stress is my body’s unhealthy response to my environment. I have neither the interest nor the capacity to eliminate adversity in my life, but I am capable of managing my stress-response. Internalizing the hostility of the world is an invitation to pain, stiffness and pathological self-destruction--the same dynamic that is eating away at the flexibility and vitality of our culture. As Jesus said in Mark 3.25, “If a house is divided against itself it cannot stand.” (Who knew Jesus quoted Abraham Lincoln?)

If we wish to keep our society from becoming an immobilized cripple, we’re going to have to figure out a non-stress response to adversity; we must cease to conclude that flexibility is an enemy that needs to be attacked and eradicated.

I realize George Carlin may or may not be your cup of tea, but I strongly recommend counteracting the immune suppression of hostility with the powerful anti-inflammatory medication of comedy. It keeps me moving.

Putting the rah-rah in RA, I remain,

With love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your Pastor