Stress and MS – The Science Part

With things like social media, constant news alerts and continually pinging phones, being more connected has meant lots of people are also feeling more stressed. It’s true that it sometimes feels like we are living in a more and more stressed world, especially when what feels like every news outlet and article is telling us this is the case. When you’re living with MS, it may be things like disease management or doctor’s appointments which are causing you to feel stressed. So how do you deal with it?

Thinking about stress in terms of the science behind it can help separate it from what you’re feeling and potentially even reduce the hold it can take on you. It’s like a complicated math problem; break it down into its parts and it doesn’t seem quite so difficult or scary any more.

Stress – The Science Part

Stress comes about when our body is triggered to release certain hormones. Back when we were hunters and gatherers, the body recognized threats such as dangerous predators and this triggered the production of hormones including cortisol and adrenaline1. These hormones helped us to respond quickly to these dangerous situations – very useful when there’s a lion chasing after you, wouldn’t you say?

The problem comes in modern times when the body recognizes things like work deadlines, public speaking, health issues, social situations and jam-packed schedules as triggers of this response. This leaves us in a state of producing these hormones all the time and when stress becomes long term this can start to have a negative impact on the body, for example causing anxiety or stomach problems.

Stress – The MS Part

There is conflicting evidence when it comes to the effect stress has on people with MS and their symptoms. Some studies have shown that stress doesn’t have an impact on MS, while others suggest that stress plays a significant role in MS flares. A study by the University of Pittsburgh for example, followed 23 relapsing MS patients for a year and found that 85% of their flares were related to stressful life events2. Other research has shown that stress management can slow down growth of new areas of damage (lesions) shown in MRI scans3.

Either way, it’s known that stress can have detrimental effects on health in general4 and being diagnosed with MS, and then managing it, can be very stressful in itself. It’s therefore a good idea to try to manage stress as much as possible when you’re living with MS.

Stress – The Management Part

Knowing how stress works helps us to control it. We know that stress comes as a result of our brain telling our body there is danger, so we need to identify those things that our brain is recognizing as triggers. Is it work that is causing you the most stress? Is it too many social commitments or family commitments, household chores?

Once you’ve identified the triggers, you can make changes, for example by cutting down on social engagements, talking to your employer about reducing your workload or getting someone to help around the house.

Then you can think more about how you deal with stress. There are lots of methods available for helping reduce stress and deal with it better, and the ones that work for you will be different to those that work for other people. It’s a good idea to give a few a try to see what helps most. Here are a few different ideas for inspiration:

  • Some people find meditation helps them feel calmer and handle stress better when it comes
  • Exercise is another way people can keep stress at bay. Just be sure not to push yourself too hard and pick MS-friendly exercises. Talk to your doctor if you want advice on the best exercise for you
  • Some people change their diet or stop drinking
  • Sleep is important to feel well, especially when dealing with MS fatigue too, and can help you to feel less stressed
  • It might help to take practical steps to organize your life, for example writing a diary 4,6
  • You might also find it helpful to talk to your neurologist or another of your doctor’s about how best to manage your stress

Taking the time to identify what causes you stress and what helps you feel calm again could help you to with feel better day-to-day and get on with doing what you love – a.k.a. the living part.

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Birgit Bauer
Written by
Birgit Bauer
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