Managing Cognitive Dysfunction in Multiple Sclerosis

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Do you suffer from short-term memory problems, word-finding difficulties, and/or a non-existent attention span? These very well could be signs of cognitive dysfunction related to your multiple sclerosis (MS).

Here are some sensible and simple tips on how you can cope with your cognitive problems and alleviate some stress in the meantime.

Tame Your Environment

We are so accustomed to noise, clutter, static, and chaos in our lives, that many of us assume that is how the world is. Well, the good news is that you have control over at least some parts of your immediate surroundings. Try the following and see what it is like to have a thought in a peaceful place:

  • Turn off the music and television. In fact, do a “sound inventory” in different rooms of your house: Is the ceiling fan squeaking? Is there a hum coming from your printer? Is your computer’s drive spinning? Does your child have his stereo on so loud that you can hear it in the kitchen? See what you can do to bring some quiet into your life.
  • Adjust the lighting. Make it soft and appealing when you can. Make it bright and focused when you need to see to do a task or to read. You may find that overhead lights can be very stressful and distracting.
  • Eliminate the clutter. Your eyes need a break from looking at stuff, especially if everything you look at chisels away at your attention—magazines that need to be read or recycled, knick-knacks that need to be dusted, other people’s belongings that need to be put away. Try a “clutter quarantine,” where you put it all in boxes for a while until you figure out what you really, really want or need in your space. You will probably be surprised at how little actually makes it out of the boxes.

    Tame Your People

    This one may be a bit trickier to accomplish, but it is equally important.

    • Only let one person talk at a time. Make it clear to those around you that if they want to be heard, they must wait their turn.
    • Embrace the conversation. This means when you have a conversation, only have a conversation. Everybody needs to put away their iPhones, newspapers, tacos, fingernail files—all of it—and just talk to each other. It might feel weird at first, so accustomed are we to “props” while we talk. But this will help both parties have a much more fulfilling conversation, as well as help those with MS follow details and find the right words.
    • Check in with others. Ask people if they understand what you are saying. Ask them to repeat themselves if you are not following the conversation. Confirm important dates, directions, anything that needs to be exact. Try not to let this embarrass you. After all, people usually love hearing their words repeated back to them or being asked to repeat themselves, as long as it is done in an interested, sincere way.

    Tame Your Brain

    You have to work with your brain in partnership if you want to accomplish things. As frustrated as you may get at times by the forgotten appointments, lost words, or wandering attention span, directing this frustration inward is a sure way to make things worse. Be nice to your brain and you will be rewarded.

    • Don’t multitask. The idea of limiting what you do to just one thing at a time is now referred to by many as “mindfulness,” the experience of being in the moment that you are in—and this is a good thing. In fact, it is likely that if you do one thing at a time, and concentrate on just that thing, you will do it better and more efficiently.
    • Organize things your way. If it makes sense to you to keep laundry detergent under the kitchen sink or extra pens in the pantry, by all means, do it—be confident in your system and stick with it. That being said, it is a good idea to pare down (or box up) all the extra stuff that you have eating up valuable space in your drawers, cupboards, and closets.
    • Talk to your brain. You can talk out loud or to yourself but think of your brain like a toddler that wants to run off and play with random objects on the way to a destination. You have to gently but firmly remind your brain of the task at hand. Be imaginative like you would with a toddler—sing a little song about the three ingredients that you need to get out of the refrigerator or imagine someone repeating “car keys” with a funny accent while you look for them. Promise yourself treats of M&Ms if you accomplish your task. Whatever it takes.

      A Word From Verywell

      Living with MS is a daily challenge for most, and this challenge can be even more difficult when cognitive problems are thrown into the mix. That being said, be kind to yourself and try to manage your daily work and home tasks as best as you can.


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