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Tips for Managing Stress with MS

By Matt Cavallo

In simple terms, stress is an emotional state of worry caused by a loss or a difficult time in someone’s life. These difficult situations that cause stress are called stressors. Pressure at home, a personal situation, or work can also be defined as stressors. Stress can take a mental and physical toll on your mind and body. Many people living with MS, myself included, believe that stress can be a trigger for MS symptoms

People living with MS can experience changes in cognition, which can affect executive functioning, information processing, memory, and attention, among other cognitive deficits, all of which can affect how we handle and manage stress. Stress also affects these cognitive abilities. This creates an additional level of frustration and anxiety for the person living with MS, who struggles with these cognitive challenges

The other thing about stress is that it isn’t a momentary blip on the radar screen. Stress is something that often is carried with the person long after the difficult situation has passed, especially when the stress involves a relationship. Sometimes even the mention of a person’s name can trigger all the stressful memories and feelings.  

The emotional and mental capacity that it takes to manage stress can lead to increased fatigue and depression, which are MS symptoms. For me, it seems like the harder my brain works to combat stress, the more fatigued I become. It also increases my depression because I feel like I am not cognitively equipped to manage stress the same way I was prior to MS lesions on my brain. Once I get depressed, I tend to stay there so I am stuck in cycle of depression caused by the stressor. 

Going into 19 years of living with MS, I have endured many stressful events. Here are my tips for managing stress.

The moment will pass. When caught in the middle of a stressful situation, it is easy to get caught up in thinking that whatever is causing the stress will never end. At that point, it is easy to let stress overwhelm your life. Take a deep breath and know that this moment will pass. 

Feel all the feels. Allow yourself to experience all of the emotions that come with the stressor. If you deny yourself these emotions, you are pushing them down and suppressing them. They will eventually bubble back up as unresolved feelings. Feel all the feels up front so you can start to process and deal with the stress early rather than letting it eat you up inside later.

Get good rest. Stress can affect your sleep. It either haunts your dreams, wakes you up in the middle of the night, or both. Before bed, try to do something to not only relax but take your mind away from the stressor. A restful night will help your mind and body recharge and refocus. 

Take part in some kind of physical activity if you can. Any physical activity you can participate in creates endorphins that have a way of making you feel not only good, but a little less stressed. Physical activity a little while before bed can also make you sleep better too. 

Minimize stressors. This is not always possible, but when it is, eliminate stressful people and situations from your life. If this is not possible, minimize the interactions with the stressor. 

Talk about it. Many of us suppress our feelings because we don’t want to burden others. We always think they are too busy to talk or that we would be bothering them with our problems. That is something you are telling yourself to avoid a tough conversation. The truth is your family, friends, and in some instances, coworkers, want to know why you are feeling stressed. Stress affects relationships, so talking about how stress is affecting you allows the person you are sharing with to empathize with your situation.

Seek help. There is nothing wrong with seeking help. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Inform your neurologist you are experiencing stress and tell them how it is affecting your MS symptoms. Also, seek mental health help. Talking to a therapist is a great way to manage stress with a qualified professional.