The Link Between Stress and MS

A plan for coping with stress will help you live better with this disease

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is not only physically overwhelming. The effort it takes to live with and manage the disease is taxing and can cause emotional stress. Some of the practical consequences of MS (like missing work or getting behind on important tasks) can make you feel overwhelmed as well.

While experts suggest that stress can contribute to MS exacerbations, there is also some evidence that the disease itself causes physiological changes that manifest as stress (e.g., tension and nervousness).

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3 MS Patients Share Their Tips for Managing Stress

The Stress of Living With MS

Living with MS means that you may have to face health limitations, such as problems with mobility, bladder issues, and impaired vision, which can cause frustration and stress. But there are many other concerns those with MS face that factor into the stress of living with this disease as well:

MS Inflammation and Stress

Autoimmunity, in which the body's immune system attacks the myelin (protective fatty layer) around the nerves on the brain and spinal cord, is a component of MS.

Some research suggests that early stages of this inflammation may cause changes in the brain's function that produce a state of anxiety. Put another way, physiological changes that result from MS can give birth to feelings of stress all on their own, which can compound stress experienced because of external factors, like daily challenges.

Stress has long been associated with MS exacerbations. It isn't completely clear whether stress actually causes exacerbations, or whether you may become more anxious than usual because of the physical changes that occur before an exacerbation has its peak impact.

The Impact on MS

Many people with MS notice that baseline symptoms, such as weakness or impaired coordination, can be worse during times of stress and anxiety. This is likely due to the fact that MS itself is exhausting, and that when your attention and energy are consumed by stress, you are less likely to function at your optimal level.

In addition, stress may suppress the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections. And infections are often associated with a worsening of MS symptoms.

Stress Reduction Strategies in MS

Stress and anxiety can take a toll on your life. Not only do these symptoms have the potential to impair your ability to function at your best with MS, but they can also prevent you from enjoying everyday life. Of course, stress can also make you less productive at home and at work, as you might not be able to focus and prioritize getting things done.

There are many ways of coping with stress if you have MS. The key is to give yourself permission to get the help you need.

Stress Reduction Strategies in MS
Verywell / Cindy Chung

Relaxation

Relaxation is the best way to combat the effects of stress on your body. When you are under stress, your body releases stress-related hormones. By relaxing, you can diminish the excess release of these hormones, reducing the sense of nervousness and tension that they produce.

A breathing technique known as the relaxation response has been proven to reverse the effects of stress on your body. You can also learn meditation, yoga or gentle stretching. Anything that relaxes you—a lukewarm bath, candles, or music, for example—can help reduce your stress in the short- and long-term.

Positive Coping Skills

Positive coping skills include strategies such as putting things in perspective, remembering your successes, and reaching out for help when you need it. The way you respond to your stress can mitigate the impact that stress has on you.

If you do not have positive coping skills, it may help to speak with a licensed therapist who can help you learn and develop a beneficial way of approaching your challenges.

Planning

If you have MS, you might never have new symptoms or an exacerbation again. But having a plan in place just in case will make everything go easier. These plans will diminish the stress induced by an exacerbation if it happens.

You can begin by thinking about what would change in your life if you were having a relapse. Who would take you to the doctor? Who would watch your kids? What about work? Go through your typical day and consider how you could deal with each complication.

Talk to the people you would need to depend on before you need them. Set aside a little "relapse fund" for takeout, help around the house, and anything else you might need. Creating a relapse plan for MS can make a big difference when things are difficult.

Pay Special Attention to Your Relationships

MS-related stress can have a major impact on your relationships. It helps when you and your partner talk with one another about any concerns so you can work to address them before small issues become big problems. Know that you are not alone—most couples have to make adjustments when one of the partners has MS.

Social Support

When a relapse occurs or when symptoms worsen, you may need help to get to your doctor’s office, fulfill some of your responsibilities, or just make dinner. Cultivate your network of friends and family. Keep close ties with the people you can depend on. Let them know how important they are in your life. And when you are feeling good, try to help them.

A Word From Verywell

Stress is an inevitability of life, and even more so with MS. The fact that stress may intensify the symptoms of MS is something that you can't ignore.

Be kind to yourself. Taking care of your health means acknowledging the impact that MS can have on your emotions, and also being careful to help prevent stress from worsening the symptoms of your MS.

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