Since I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2012, I learned that certain things trigger my symptoms. Small changes that most people can adjust to with no problem can crap out my day in minutes. Like when the temperature changes, or noises are sudden and loud, or my physical activity level increases. However, stress is the worst trigger for my MS symptoms. And it’s not just major stressors that impact symptoms – relatively minor stressors can also be problematic to my physical health. So let’s explore the relationship between stress and MS.
Having MS Gets On My Nerves
(No pun intended.)
Like any other chronic disease, having MS causes stress. There is no cure for MS. The best you can hope for is to slow down the prgoression of the disease. And MS is wildly unpredictable. People with MS can be relative OK one day, and wake up the next morning unable to walk, or have some other issue that was completely non-existent the day before. I have seen this happen to my mom over the past 30+ years I don’t know how many times. And it has happened to me several times since my diagnosis. On top of that, we constantly worry. How will we continue to financially support ourselves? How will MS affect our loved ones? Am I going to be able to have health insurance in the future? You know, little things like that.
And so – for me – well-wishers send messages and memes of positivity. Lots of inspiring quotes to keep me in the right frame of mind. But the reality is, this disease is stressful – and I can say that as both a caregiver and a patient. There are going to be moments where I am stressed. And, unless you have a cure that will not only stop the disease, but reverse the damage that has been done to me and my mom, that stress isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
And Then, My Stress Affects My MS
So here’s the fun part: stress has a negative impact on MS. Science says so. You can read more about it here and here. There are other studies as well, and a ton of ancedotal evidence. Personally, I was diagnosed shortly after two significantly stressful events that occurred 30 days apart: my father’s death and the birth of my son. I developed physical symptoms a few months afterwards, which caused me to take pause and get myself to a neurologist. Two months after my baseline MRI, I received the diagnosis.
Did the stress cause my MS? I don’t think so. Did the stress exacerbate physical symptoms of MS that was already present in my brain and spinal cord? There is no doubt in my mind. I don’t believe in coincidences.
And here we are seven years since my diagnosis. When I am stressed, I feel worse. Same with my mom, who has had MS for over 30 years. But the thing is, the stressor doesn’t have to be a major life event or change to substantially impact physical and mental health symptoms. It could be something a simple, minor inconvenience – such as my kids not listening after I have told them something a dozen times. Or a traffic jam making me late for an appointment. When these everyday stressors occur, I can become fatigued, or sometimes my arm will tingle and go numb, or my mood will drastically change from glad to mad.
MS patients not only deal with everyday stressors, which impacts MS, but then we have stressors in our lives that are unique to MS. Which impacts MS. Double whammy.
In short: the very thing that stresses us makes the very thing that stresses us worse. Then we stress more. And we become worse.
It’s a vicious MS-Stress Cycle.
So How Do You Break the Cycle?
For MS patients to have the best chance of living their best health, we must manage our stress.
That does not mean stress management will cure MS.
What that means is that MS patients can increase the likelihood of feeling better and staving off flare-ups and exacerbations.
Incorporating positive lifestyle changes and coping skills into our routine gives MS patients the best chance of breaking the MS-Stress Cycle.
Once you learn to effectively manage your stress, you can replace the MS-Stress Cycle with a new cycle – one I like to call the, ‘MS with Less Stress Cycle.’
Stress Management Has Worked for Me – and it Can Work For You!
Over the past 7 or so years, I have implemented positive lifestyle choices and coping skills to manage my stress, and subsequently, my MS symptoms. It has taken time to determine what steps work best for me. And it didn’t happen overnight – it took time, persistance, and dedication. I started putting my health and happiness first! As a result, instead of having good days and bad days, I typically have good days and better days.