Is stress or excitement stopping me from controlling my AS?

When symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis return for unexpected reasons

Jemma Newman avatar

by Jemma Newman |

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Lately, I’ve had an enormous grin plastered across my face, thanks to lots of exciting life events happening over the last three months. This week, I’m holding my very first art exhibition, which I’ve been feverishly preparing for. In addition, I was recently offered an amazing part-time job, as well as commissions for three large paintings.

These things are all wonderful, which is why my smile has stretched from ear to ear and my eyes have been glittering with exhilaration. But on the downside, as the proverbial roller coaster of my health plunges, my body doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between excitement and stress.

Does my body see excitement as a negative experience?

Strangely, my ankylosing spondylitis (AS) symptoms have been getting worse every time I say yes to an opportunity. My ribs and shoulder blades are much more stiff and painful than usual, especially at night, and I’m struggling to sleep due to the increasing pain. I feel slightly terrified that I’m making my AS worse through my own choices, even though I see them as positive.

At first, I refused to believe that the thrill of opportunities could cause my body to feel worse. Excitement is a fantastic feeling that takes over my entire body. When I first gathered up my courage to approach a café and ask if I could exhibit my paintings, my hands were quivering nervously while holding my art. But when I got a positive response and an offer to exhibit, my body was filled with electric excitement.

I can vividly recall walking away from the café after receiving the good news about my exhibition and feeling my heart hammering with the thrill of achieving a lifelong dream. I felt like singing out loud (something I’d never normally do) or dancing in public. I was so happy and could barely believe this was happening to me. Becoming a proper artist has been a deeply held desire of mine for decades.

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My ankylosing spondylitis diagnosis brought up conflicting emotions

My AS symptoms worsened as I said yes to opportunities

Because I’ve been so happy and mentally challenged in a good way, it was confusing for my body to be collapsing. Nothing else in my life had changed aside from these wonderful opportunities, yet I could feel my AS creeping back into my life. I was still exercising, eating healthy, fresh food, and avoiding getting sick, yet my sacroiliac joints and thoracic spine were burning at an increased level that I couldn’t ignore.

Eventually, my wonderful sister, who also has an ankylosing spondylitis diagnosis, explained to me that her body can’t handle raised cortisol levels for a prolonged period. After hearing this, I realized that my excitement could be playing a role in my declining health.

In an article titled “What Happens When Your Immune System Gets Stressed Out?” the Cleveland Clinic explores the direct connection between cortisol, stress, and inflammation: “Stress occurs when life events surpass your abilities to cope. It causes your body to produce greater levels of the stress hormone cortisol.” It adds that, “If you don’t control high stress levels, chronic inflammation can accompany it and can contribute to the development and progression of many diseases of the immune system.”

Wondering how to handle my life choices

I’m left feeling dejected, and yet again let down by my body. My physical self is clearly signaling me frantically, telling me to slow down and stop adding to my substantial workload, but my brain didn’t make the connection between positive emotions and negative physical symptoms.

In my life before AS, I thrived on challenges. I loved being a problem-solver and tackled projects with relish. Sure, I felt stressed and was often running from one project to the next, but it never seemed to affect me physically. I could maintain that level of exertion, knowing that a break would come after I achieved my goal.

But now, my body can’t seem to handle prolonged adrenaline, excitement, or stress. It seems like I need to somehow change my personality, which feels wrong. It’s frustrating to think that I can’t control my life to the level I want or let myself get too excited about projects or opportunities. My body might flood my system with cortisol and overload my joints with increased inflammation.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to share. All I know is that chronic diseases like AS seem to have an effect far outside the body parts they attack. It’s a delicate balancing act, and the best I can do is pay attention to my body’s signals and try to learn from each mistake I make.

If you can relate, I’d be grateful to hear it in the comments below.

Note: Ankylosing Spondylitis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Ankylosing Spondylitis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ankylosing spondylitis.


George avatar


Jemma, I reacted after every activity or event but I assumed it was the physical aspect that was causing it. It didn't matter if the activity was stressful or not. However, I believe it can be surprisingly hard to know that there isn't stress I'm not aware of. Most stress is probably otherwise good for us. I really don't have a good handle on it. I think there is frequently a general difference between men and women. What I definitely experience is that quite often the pains, strongly AS related pains or not, all hurt at the same time. I believe this is true for a lot of us. Everything (or most everything) hurts at once (as if the pains communicate), which then gets compounded with added stress. I'm hugely aware of that. G

Jemma Newman avatar

Jemma Newman

Interesting idea there's a difference in AS between men and women, I've wondered this a few times. I definitely agree that everything AS related can hurt at the same time - especially when I get sick it all seems to compound and get worse at the same time! I suppose that's the systemic inflammation. Take care George :)

Wes Bailye avatar

Wes Bailye

Hi Jemma

I have lived with AS for over 30 years. I have learned to deal with the effects and what I believe to reduce my stresses. Find a place which you are the most happy, for me its a little property in the South West with no neighbors, surrounded by forests and paddocks. For others it could be visiting the beach, go for a walk etc.
I visit weekends and take the time to reflect on the weeks events and let it flow away, really hard to do at times. I still have those times where it just gets to me and have to deal with the stress, as I work in a high stress environment for a large proportion of the year. I strongly believe you need to take control of your thoughts, try not thinking about the pain and your problems, it takes a lot of practice but does help immensely, a form of meditation.

I do all the wrong things in life, I drink more than I should and have a diet you would call see food and exercise very little, but I survive and live mostly without a lot of pain.

What has really changed things for me is, I no longer take any prescribed anti inflammatory drugs or the Humira injections, I've swapped the lots for a simple collection of vitamins and oils which work for me. I take on occasions Hemp oil (0.3% THC), it help with sleep, vitamins which work for me are fish oil, multi B specifically B6 and B12 and the important one is Magnesium, without these the AS takes hold.

This helps me, but may not for all.

Best wishes


Jemma Newman avatar

Jemma Newman

Hi Wes, thanks for commenting! Your home near the forest sounds wonderful and very peaceful. I live close to the beach and it always helps me relax. Really interesting to hear how you're managing your AS, it's great to hear you have found things that help you, I'll look into those supplements. All I use is magnesium and I think it's fantastic - helps me sleep well too!


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