Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
While MS can profoundly affect your physical health, it can also take a serious toll on your mental health. Although depression, stress, anxiety, and frustration are all common in people dealing with advancing MS, you don’t have to suffer silently. Here are some ways to reduce stress, create a healthier mindset, and maintain a better quality of life.
Emotional and mental health issues are not uncommon in people with advancing MS. Each day brings with it new challenges and new questions. The constant unknowing and worrying can drive even the most grounded person to become anxious, stressed, even fearful. Some of the emotional changes you may experience include:
- depressive symptoms and episodes
- grieving for the loss of a “normal” life
- stress and anxiety
- cognition changes
Coping with Depression
People with MS are highly susceptible to clinical depression—research shows that the occurrence of clinical depression is higher in people with MS than the general population. Depression is not a sign of weakness, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You cannot prevent depression, and no amount of willpower can control it.
However, depression can be treated. Most often, doctors prescribe a combination of therapy and antidepressant medication. This therapy may be one-on-one with a licensed professional, or, because of the specifics related to MS, your doctor may suggest you meet with other patients who are dealing with advancing MS and depression.
A diagnosis of MS comes with a lot of loss—it can, eventually, mean the loss of job, physical capabilities, friendships, and enjoyment of activities. It’s not uncommon for people with MS to mourn for these “losses.” Grief and depression are very similar, but in an emotionally healthy person, grief has an end. However, people experiencing severe grief may have a difficult time releasing themselves from the sadness.
One-on-one counseling, support groups, as well as acceptance of the disease in a supportive environment can help you deal with the grief you may experience before it becomes a larger problem.
It seems every part of disease care, treatment, and prevention can cause stress—the unpredictability of MS; the invisibility of symptoms; the financial concerns associated with covering treatment; and the constant adjustments needed for the progressing disease. For even the emotionally healthiest of people, this can all feel too overwhelming.
In some ways, stress can be healthy—it promotes faster responses and can even boost immunity. However, prolonged, unresolved stress can have the opposite effect, and for people with MS, this may mean you begin experiencing new or increased symptoms.
Just as with any other mental health issue, stress can be resolved. Regular exercise can help alleviate stress. Talk with your doctor or physical therapist about ways you can be physically active without aggravating your symptoms or setting back progress.
Learning relaxation techniques such as yoga, might help you reduce your stress as well. If you are physically limited due to the progression of MS, meditation, deep breathing, or mindful relaxation can help you reduce stress, too.
MS causes lesions on your brain. Although it is rare (normally the lesions do not affect your cognitive abilities), these lesions may affect your thinking, reasoning, and memory during times of increased stress. These stress-related lapses are usually temporary, but they should not be ignored. Tell your doctor about what you experienced and how you felt on a stress scale when the lapse occurred.
Simply put: Let it out. Expressing your anger or frustration can often help you relieve stress. However, it should not be your primary form of stress reduction. Combine “letting it out” with deep breathing or meditation.
When you’ve had a few moments to calm yourself, approach the situation as if you are making a pre-game plan for the next time you feel this way. Ask yourself: Why was I so angry? What caused me to feel so frustrated? Was this something that could have prevented? What can I do to keep it from happening again? Prepare yourself with a game plan in the event you find yourself feeling similar feelings in the future.
Ways to Reduce Stress and Calm Down
There is no custom way to relax. For each person, “relaxing” may mean something different—whether it’s reading, listening to music, cooking, or any number of activities. As long as it helps you feel calm and in control, it can help you relax.
Deep breathing can reduce tension, relax your body, and help your mind feel more at ease. Deep breathing can also be used when you anticipate a stressful period—for example, if you’re nervous about going into public, being around a lot of people, or getting back test results. Deep breathing only takes a few minutes, doesn’t require special equipment, and can be used at any point when you need to feel calm.
Yoga combines breathing and gentle stretching to help release mental and physical tension. If MS hinders your physical range, you may still be able to practice modified poses to help you stretch, relax, and let go of stress. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist before you begin yoga.
Written by: Kimberly Holland
Published on Mar 20, 2012
Updated on Mar 22, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD