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Stress Management Important Part of Dealing with MS

By Jessica Norris
mubariz-mehdizadeh-lHmU-fxZwzM-unsplash.jpgStress has a devastating effect on mental and physical health, and wellbeing – affecting both multiple sclerosis patients and their caregivers. Effective stress management is, therefore, crucial for these groups to live a healthier, happier, and more productive life. I know this firsthand, because I am both a MS patient and a caregiver to a family member with MS. 

My experience as a caregiver started at the age of seven, when my mother started experiencing the symptoms of what was later diagnosed as relapsing-remitting MS. While caring for my mother was certainly rewarding, it was also physically exhausting and emotionally draining. I learned at a young age just how the disease has an immediate effect on all who love and care for the patient. 

Fast forward to 27 years later, in 2011.

I was 36 weeks pregnant with my first child when I received a phone call at work that my dad had passed away from a heart attack. His death immediately propelled me into the role of primary caregiver to my mother, who did not even live in the same city as my husband and me. Our family sold our house and relocated to take care of her. I quit my lucrative job as a research scientist, resulting in a huge negative effect on my household income. Then, there was the stress that most people contend with when a family member dies, such as grief, mourning, and settling the estate. All this while I was in my final month of pregnancy. After the birth of my son, I started experiencing physical symptoms that raised some alarm bells, such as chronic fatigue, headaches, weakness in my limbs, and tingling and numbness in my face. At first, my doctors attributed these symptoms to postpartum issues, but after several months of neurological tests and MRIs, I received the same diagnosis as my mother – RRMS.

There is no doubt in my mind that all the stress associated with the death of my father and the birth of my son contributed to the manifestation of symptoms that ultimately led to my MS diagnosis.

A number of scientific studies demonstrate that long-term stress and major stressful events can trigger flare-ups of MS symptoms. According to scientific research, effective management of stress and anxiety can reduce MS relapses and lesions. By nature, some MS patients – myself included – are more prone to anxiety than others dealing with the same situation. But even MS patients who are naturally distressed can be taught stress management and anxiety reduction techniques.

It is also important to remember that the challenges and responsibilities of caring for a loved one with MS can cause significant stress to the caregiver. This stress can lead to caregiver distress – a condition where the caregiver becomes more susceptible to serious health risks, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and heart attacks. In addition, MS caregivers are also at risk for caregiver burnout – a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that is often marked by fatigue, anxiety, depression, and a change in attitude from caring to unconcerned. As the disease progresses, caregiving may become more physically and emotionally demanding, which often results in the neglect of both caregiver and patient needs. The wellbeing of the MS caregiver is critical to the wellbeing of the MS patient. 

Both groups live with high levels of stress – putting their entire wellbeing at risk.

Since my RRMS diagnosis, I have studied the science behind stress management techniques, including but not limited to meditation and mindfulness, aromatherapy, CBD oil use, diet, and exercise. I implemented the tools that I learned, and practiced them until I established a wellness routine that worked for me. To date, my disease has not progressed – I have not had any new brain or spinal lesions in years. Now having said this, stress management is only a part – albeit an important one – of dealing with this disease; there are many factors involved, and just managing stress will not guarantee disease stabilization. However, it does provide patients with a better chance of fighting relapses.

I know I cannot completely avoid stress; it remains a part of my life. In addition to being a MS patient and caregiver, I am also a mom to two children (one with autism spectrum disorder), a wife, and a business owner. Using the stress management techniques that I now teach to other MS patients and caregivers, I am able to stay in control of my life and mitigate the effects of this disease.

I attribute the successful management of my MS symptoms, in large part, to managing my stress and living a healthy lifestyle.

Stress management is about taking charge of your lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and ways that you solve problems. These techniques can help MS patients and caregivers break the hold stress has on their lives so they can be happier and healthier, and gain the resilience to hold up under pressure and meet challenges head-on. However, what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. It is important to experiment with different techniques to discover the remedy that works best for you.