Stress and MS Are Bad Companions, So Take It Easy This Holiday Season

Columnist Ed Tobias' life has been like a country song lately, so he's playing it cool

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by Ed Tobias |

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My condo was hit by Hurricane Ian in October. Less than a month later, it was hit again by Tropical Storm Nicole. I have a dog whose bark is shattering and a cat who likes to bite. The car dealer can’t find the title for the minivan I’m leasing, and about a week ago, someone scratched the side of it while it was parked — a hit-and-run. Oh, and Christmas is right around the corner. Do you think I’m stressed?

Stress isn’t good for a healthy person, and it can be horrible for someone with multiple sclerosis (MS). A review article published last month in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin reports a strong association between stress and MS relapses.

On the other hand, when we moved from Maryland to Florida a couple of years ago, I had a ton of stress without a noticeable increase in symptoms. The same is true, at least so far, for this current round of stress.

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Be prepared for stress

While the scientific jury is still debating exactly how and when stress affects people with MS, it’s best to have a strategy for dealing with it, particularly this time of year. MS News Today columnist Beth Ullah is already planning on how to cope with the rigors of Christmas. Every year, her plan is a bit different. This year, she writes, she and her husband are skipping restaurant meals, which add stress from weather, indoor temperature variations, and transportation concerns. She’s also pledged not to worry about things she can’t control.

Like Beth, former columnist Jessie Ace also suggests not worrying about things you can’t control. Exercise and a healthy diet are also high on her list. I’m not big on diet — I like all of the wrong foods — but I’m a believer in the power of exercise. Swimming and using the exercise machines at the gym are big stress relievers for me.

A small study last year reported that using strategies such as active coping and seeking emotional support can help improve the quality of life of people with MS. Mindfulness, another method, is already popular. It uses a combination of activities like yoga, meditation, music, stretching, and group support to reduce stress.

Music is definitely a stress reducer for me. Yoga, when I’ve tried it, has helped a bit.

This year may be more stressful than last

A survey by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) last month reported that 31% of those polled expected to feel more stressed this holiday season than last, an increase of 9%. Things causing this anticipated stress include worries about affording holiday gifts (50%) and meals (39%) and finding holiday gifts (37%).

“This is a busy time of year for many people, and it’s common to put a lot of expectations on ourselves during the holidays,” President Rebecca W. Brendel of the APA said. She added that it’s OK to opt out of some or all holiday events if they bring more stress or distress than joy.

I think all of us with MS should feel comfortable opting out of activities, but we often don’t — including me. How about you?

You’ve invited to visit my personal blog at

Note: 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 other 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. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Mary Ellen Miller avatar

Mary Ellen Miller

I mourn all the things I can no longer do during the holidays, which include cooking, decorating, a live tree, wrapping packages and sending cards. It seems like that’s just about everything and I feel guilty because I miss doing it too. I’m feeling sad.

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Mary Ellen,

I've never cooked, so I don't miss that, I'm an awful wrapper and I'm poor a sending cards. But, I do miss a tree. On the other hand, I enjoy eggnog, short gatherings with friends and listening to traditional Christmas music. I also love getting gadget type toys. So, I enjoy the things I enjoy. I'm 74 years old and I've had plenty of past pleasure from what I no longer do.

I hope your holidays will be enjoyable no matter how you decide to celebrate them. It's better to learn to enjoy dancing in the rain than to hide from the storm.


Debbie Wade avatar

Debbie Wade

I agree that saying "no" is okay but I feel guilty for how that affects my husband and his ability to enjoy seeing friends and family. Bless his heart he never complains.

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Debbie,

I sometimes feel guilty as well. Fortunately, my wife and I have been married for 46 years and she only complains once in a while.

Happy holidays,


Tom Anderson avatar

Tom Anderson

I feel bad opting out because I don't want the relative to think I don't care or am not interested in them (basically, "I don't love them".) That brings up the phenomenon of "You Look so Good". I really don't want to get into it with them how a 600 mile drive (through New York City) to a home I'm not familiar with can potentially cause problems they wouldn't think of- stuck on the freeway and can't walk around the car or to a gas station, going to the bathroom all night and flushing, or not!? Eating a snack to help me fall asleep if baclofen doesn't work, walking up and down stairs, leaving lights on so I can see, not leaning hard on a particular object or just being aware it is there, not caring to stay up to midnight,... on and on. Things would look like to them that everything went fine afterwards, but only I know how "not fun PIA" it was- more like work you don't want to do. So far away New Year's is out for me. I'll do the one day Christmas thing two hours away and drive home late, that's plenty.
(Not related) Some experts type stress as growth or detrimental (something like that). Things that challenge us may be stressful but not harmful depending on our outlook and the stressor. But I think we really need to watch out for the harmful stuff. A bad job with no support, feeling like they are after your first mistake; that kind of stress might set things off, I believe. Have a good holiday Mr. Tobias.

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Tom,

A 600 mile drive through NYC stressful. I consider that a challenge that helps me grow, especially since I grew up here and even drove a taxi for some extra case while in my first post-college job. :-)

But, you're right about staying in someone else's home. There are very, very people I feel comfortable doing that with. I've avoided doing it with one of my best friends but I will stay a night or two with two of my sisters-in-law. They've known me for over 50 years, so they truly understand my unique problems...even the embarrassing ones.

Happy holidays to you, too...and please call me Ed. No need for formalities between MS buddies.


Y avatar


Another helpful reminder. Thank you very much!


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