Chill Seeker: Tips for Reducing MS Anxiety

A whopping 43 percent of all people with MS have some type of anxiety disorder. Worse, according to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America, “Anxiety is perhaps the most taxing and under-treated psychological effect of living with MS.” 

Which makes sense. The unpredictability of the disease and its progression may make planning your life hard and living it even harder. Emotional changes, says the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, are part and parcel of the disease itself.

For starters, most of us don’t know much about the disease when we learn that we have it, and fear of the unknown is at the top of the anxiety list. Nerve damage in the brain along with some MS medications can also lead to emotional changes. Yet according to the Society, “In the face of MS, people may tend to focus primarily on their physical health and neglect their emotional health — which is an essential component of overall health and wellness.”

Though no single approach works for everyone, here are some simple tips you can use to get started.

Better sleep. Solving a sleep disturbance may not be simple or easy, but assessing your sleep with this one-page sleep assessment tool is. Understanding the problem is the first step in solving it, and solving it — especially for those with MS — is critical.

Sleep disturbance in people with MS can lead to a long list of physical, chemical and emotional changes and can worsen anxiety, irritability and depression. For an equally long list of reasons, people with MS are prone to sleep disturbance.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, “Studies suggest that people with MS may be up to three times more likely to experience sleep disturbances than the general population, and about two times as likely to experience a reduced quality of sleep.”

Some of that is the result of lesions and damage to the brain caused by MS which is believed to disrupt our body clocks and sleep-wake cycles. Add that to restless legs, pain, spasms and spasticity.

And some of it can be attributed to the uncertainty that living life with MS creates.

Yet, like anxiety, sleep disturbance, says the Society, is a “very common, yet under-diagnosed, problem.”

Get out more. Evidence shows that being close to green space reduces stress and lowers symptoms of anxiety and depression, actually getting out and interacting with nature lowers them even more. And just getting some fresh air — green space or not — can be helpful, too.

Can’t readily get close to nature? According to the Attention Restoration Theory, manmade structures and environments — museums, art galleries, even monasteries and such — can have restorative properties to them, too.

Catch your breath. Deep-breathing techniques can help people with MS get more out of it. Deep breathing, says the American Institute of Stress, can help you relax, slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and reduce anxiety and stress. Find out how to do it here or here.

Take three for yourself. Three minutes that is. That’s about how long it takes to go through the first meditation you’ll find out calm.com (also available as an app for tablets and phones). Some of their content must be purchased, but the site also offers some free, easy and guided meditation exercises. There are also multiple other apps available that may help you unwind.

Give yourself a break. According to Psychology Today, you can help yourself. Self-compassion — being kind to yourself and acknowledging you’re doing “your absolute best to cope” — can help you deal with negative emotions and allow you to address other types of psychological stress that are. Research suggests it can also promote physical activity which can further reduce stress.

Get social. Try to keep up with friends and family if you can. Sometimes sharing your problems with someone who cares about you — and you about them — can put things in a different perspective according to Britain’s Multiple Sclerosis Trust. As can learning about the problems he or she is dealing with. Schedule a coffee, grab some lunch, go to a movie (a comedy if you can…humor is another tool for combating anxiety and stress in MS) or just ask him or her to drop by. If you can’t get out, MS Connection lets you join more than 25,000 others in a peer volunteer group that can provide the “emotional support for the challenges that MS throws at you.” 

MORE: Three tips for newly diagnosed multiple sclerosis patients

Multiple Sclerosis News Today 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 another 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.

20 comments

  1. Paul kuyp says:

    Tell me how I can get out more when sidewalks are snow-covered, temp is -30celsius! You people are all high & mighty thinking it’s so easy! Walk a mile in my shoes. Bet you can’t. Just find a cure already. My neurologist told me in 2003 not to worry, in 10yrs there’d be a cure. Was he lieing or what?

    • Mike Knight says:

      Hi Paul and thanks for the feedback and input. I am sorry if the piece seemed out of touch or high and mighty, I am always concerned about that. Though I’ve had MS symptoms for 15+ Years, I wasn’t diagnosed until late 2013 (primary progressive). I try to write about the things I find somehow helpful but admittedly don’t know if others will find it useful in their lives.

      I am struggling to walk now (with assistive devicesor without) and trying to get my head around that and a little anxious about what that loss will really mean. So these tips were meant to provide a number of ways for me to try and cope. My thinking was they might be useful to others, too.

      Again, thanks for reading my work and for your thoughts, too, I appreciate them.

      • Debby Bianchi says:

        Mike, I thoroughly enjoyed your article & from a person who’s had MS since 1991 I applaud you for helping each of us try to deal even better on a daily basis. Your thoughts are appreciated.

      • Dawn says:

        I am with you and understand Paul’s response .. the cold has a giant impact on my movements ..seasonal changes such as winter are depressive and hurt ..have had MS 20 years … no cure ..just big pharma meds that seem to complicate other symptoms.. I hate drugs and reactions . Have had quite a few .. I look to more natural ways ..your suggestions are just what I do but winter months are harder ..but d is crucial … my ms specialist at a mayo clinic suggested 10 mg of melatonin … works great for better sleep .. I also find listening to white noise and nature sounds , Pilates for ms you tube videos help decreases muscle spasms as well as good communication and activities with my friends family and doctors … my anxiety levels are certainlly better … I tried cbd oil for a month and that was well worth trying .but I can not afford it … my last episode a year ago left me unable to work for the first time in my 20 years … had worked 26 years at the same place of employment … it was physically demanding … at this point I am applying for disability but live in a state that it is hard to get on even with MS and age… this year has been beyond difficult for me to wrap my head around but I have no intention of ever giving up on myself and doing what I can do instead of what I can’t do sure helps … thanks for your post … I am always researching helpfull ways that do not necessarily mean drugs … I keep hearing a cure is closer but nothing so far except new big pharma drugs with scary possible side effects not worth risking … prayers to all with this horrible disease … stem cell seems promising and so does cannabis oil concentrate … I live where cannabis of any kind is illegal … really infuriating me that my state will not go legal at least for medical patients , but it is getting closer …

    • Don says:

      Yeah many of these can be tough for us. I can’t see sitting through a 2 hour comedy show without having to get up every 20 min to us the bathroom to be laugh But I love reading these ideas so I can see what will work and I actually moved 1000 miles to live in the sun without a job or family…it was scary, but it has been working out pretty well. Good luck to you!

  2. Heather Norton says:

    Mike, this is the only MS social media I read. It’s evidenced based, easy to read and presented in an authentic manner. Thank you. I have SPMS and appreciate any news of progress!

  3. Tamara Andrews says:

    Hi. I appreciate your article. I have gone misdiagnosed for 30 years and after a severe relapse I am starting Ocrevisus. We moved from Charlotte to Cleveland Ohio for my husbands job. I do understand the snow & ice sidewalks & awful cold. It has definitely contributed to making walking more difficult. I bought hiking poles on Amazon for $20.00 and the have ice & snow tips on them. I use them to get aside when not to bitter cold. I also have gone to Lowe’s in the mornings and used to a cart to walk around the store & get my steps in. The store tells me lots of people walk & they promote it. I can also take my dog in Lowe’s or Home Depot & Walk. Other times I go to a Target. It helps a lot to get out & move, be actively involved with others😄🙃. I do believe there is definitely a need for sun daily in our brains to help with symptoms. That remains to be a challenge in Ohio. Charlotte is an awesome place with mild temps health problems.

    • Mike Knight says:

      Thanks so much and I think you’re right on all counts (staying active and engaged and Charlotte). We like Cleveland fine too, but haven’t lived there. Thanks for reading the article, I appreciate it!

    • Tamara Peruzzo says:

      I used to work at a mall as part of the security force. Many malls will open the doors early in the morning for “mall walkers”. These are people who generally have difficulty walking on uneven terrain, can’t handle cold weather, or just want to walk in a controlled environment. See if your local mall does this as well. Walking the corridors early in the morning helps to avoid shoppers getting in your way and to avoid crowds for those who are uncomfortable in crowds.

  4. Margaret says:

    This is the first time I see one of your articles. Very inspiring. I have had MS since 2001.
    My husband works out of town a lot and so I am home alone most of the time. I have neck and back issues on top of MS.
    My 3 boys are grown and out on their own but I do see them fairly often.
    I am working on how to get other people to come to my house to spend time with me……it’s just not that easy!?!?

    • Mike Knight says:

      Hello, Margaret, and thanks for reading this piece and for your feedback, too. I also have similar problems trying to fit stuff like these tips into my life and routine, and when I write these sorts of pieces I try to include some small things that might be helpful and easier to do on a regular basis. I am trying to incorporate deep breathing as a means of calming anxiety but also potentially having more energy. I would not call myself
      super successful at this so far, but I think it is helpful when I do it routinely. I also started the seven day meditation on calm.com (because it’s free and I wanted to see what the seven day trial would do) but got sidetracked and need to get back to it. I chose these two tips because they are self-contained, meaning I wouldn’t have to go too far or changed too much to make them happen:-).

      A lot of times I write about the issues I am personally confronting and then gather up research/ideas that may be helpful for addressing them and then write about it, hoping that perhaps that may be helpful to someone else. I’m sorry that it doesn’t sound like the case for these and hope that you have more success finding a friend (or friends) to keep you company. I also hope that I will write something you find more beneficial the future. Until then, I hope today’s a good day for you… good luck and take care!

  5. Sheila says:

    Thanks, Mike. Your articles help bridge the isolation. Your articles give me the encouragement I need sometimes. This one about anxiety really helps. We all need to remember that there are others with the same sadness and concerns. No one is alone! Mike-thanks for your help!

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