Editor’s note: “Need to Know” is a series inspired by common forum questions and comments from readers. Have a comment or question about MS? Visit our forum. This week’s question is inspired by the forum topic “How I Manage Stress With MS” from July 10, 2018.
Whether physical, psychological, or emotional, stress puts the brain and body into “fight or flight” mode, producing symptoms like heart palpitations, mood imbalances, hypertension, insomnia, stomach problems, and profuse sweating. Frequent exposure to stress leads to chronic (perpetual) stress responses. If you routinely live in a state of fight or flight, you become at risk for stress becoming a “new normal.”
In many ways, life is nothing but stress. Parenting is stressful. So is work. So is caring for older or disabled loved ones. Traffic, shopping, crowds, money troubles, relationship conflicts, and household repairs are ordinary stress occurrences. Stress can also rear a much uglier profile: natural disasters, divorce, car accidents, criminal victimization, or having an incurable neurological condition like MS!
The doctor may say to avoid stress, but how is that even possible?
How stress impacts MS
It’s no wonder stress is considered a trigger for MS. Inflammation, after all, is part of the stress response.
Stress also has a major impact on the immune system. With MS, the immune system is already compromised, so stress could become an unwelcome inspiration for new MS disease activity.
Throw in muscle tension, poor sleep, and anxiety, and you have all the ingredients for a flare-up. Pain, muscle spasms, cognitive fog, fatigue: these are all common stress responses for people with MS.
Even when a pseudoexacerbation — not a relapse, but a surfacing of unpleasant MS symptoms — occurs as the result of stress, it can lay us out for hours or days.
Stress management for people with MS
Fortunately, there are lots of ways to address stress in your life.
Juggling work with family life and self-care is difficult for someone with MS.
There are evidence-based stress management practices you can learn to reframe your approach to life when it seems to be flying off the rails. Recent research shows Pythagorean self-awareness intervention can bring relief to psychological distress and benefit cognitive function in people with MS.
These and other easy relaxation practices include:
- Yoga or mild stretching
- Warm baths
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Guided imagery and meditation
- Breathing exercises
- Immersive activities (jigsaw puzzles, coloring books, playing music)
- Daily journaling
If everything you face on a daily basis is a source of stress, it’s time to reassess your choices and expectations. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do you have trouble saying “no” to activities you don’t have time or energy for? (This is especially problematic for parents of school-aged kids.)
- Is your home life overstuffed with appointments and obligations, with little time left over for taking care of yourself?
- Are you shortchanging yourself sleep, meals, or exercise just to keep up with life’s demands?
- Is your job a major stress contributor? Can you act on workplace challenges, or are they out of your control?
- Do family members or friends create stress by not taking your MS seriously? Do they express resentment toward your special needs?
Sometimes, you can strive for more than you have resources to maintain. This is a common problem, even for people without MS. How do you break out of this quandary?
- Ask for help. If you share a household with others, ask them to contribute to tasks or maintenance. If you can afford to, pay for services to manage this part of your life. If nothing else, neighborhood teens are often looking for odd jobs.
- Find your support system. It might be a face-to-face MS support group, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be an online forum where you can safely rant about the challenges of living with MS. Seek out good friends to spend more time with. They might need your company, too!
- Share your concerns with your MS specialist. Some related emotional or psychological issues could be addressed through visits with a therapist.
- Talk to your loved ones. They may not realize they’re adding to your stress levels. Often, they’re happy to support you but don’t want to impose on your sense of independence. If concerns are financial or organizational, ask them to help you solve those problems. Many hands make light work.
Are you proactive about stress management? What tips and tricks for coping with stress can you share with your peers? Post your replies in the comments below or at the original “How I Manage Stress With MS” forum entry.
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