Symptom Management

Meditation and MS

By Rae-Lynne Mattis, LCSW


Recently I asked several friends, “What comes to your mind when I mention meditation? Is there a way you often feel calmer and more relaxed?” Responses include:

  • My early morning routine of watering my garden while it’s cool outside.
  • Sitting at my kitchen window watching the birds and butterflies in my garden.
  • Recalling memories of my children when they were young, which were happy times in my life.
  • Picturing myself at the beach – my happy place – while the waves are lapping on the shore.
  • Focusing on my breathing as I think, ‘Peace, be still.’

Each one includes sensory images, stillness, a specific focus of attention, and positive emotional responses. These are the hallmarks of the mind-body connection. For that moment, time is suspended, the heart rate and respiration slow, and the body’s stress response system is abated.

A brief look at the autonomic nervous system shows two primary response systems at work as we move throughout the day. First, the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for the fight-or-flight reaction: cortisol and adrenaline surge through the body and we’re usually aware of a higher distress level. If you pause to notice, your body will give signs, such as chest tightness, headache, tingling sensations in your hands, or shallow breathing. You might try noticing physical stress patterns that show up for you. The phrase “sympathetic storming” reminds me of “stepping on the gas” to fight stress. And we can usually feel it physically.

The second response system is the para-sympathetic nervous system, or the relaxation response system. If the sympathetic system is your body stepping on the gas pedal, this is your body saying “step on the brakes.” Meditative practices can be relied upon to consciously aid in managing the complex kinds of stressors faced in MS, by supporting the parasympathic system, which is responsible for calmimg your heart and relaxing your muscles. Chronic pain, anxious or depressed mood, and financial or economic stressors are all realities that accompany living with a chronic illness. As you are aware of your body’s cues, you can choose to reduce stress.

Here’s a simple breathing practice you might try: Sitting with both feet on the floor, your posture upright and chest open, breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of four, then hold to the count of seven, and blow out through the mouth to the count of eight. Repeat this pattern four times. You will likely notice an improved sense of calmness and well-being. Dr. Herbert Benson coined this “The Relaxation Response.” Videos are available online for you to observe and help with your own practice. Repeat this pattern three times a day and call on it as needed.

Another form of meditation is guided imagery, which is the practice of listening quietly to recorded music and words that prompt you to go to a place in your mind that is peaceful. The mind is our avenue to consciously slow down the sympathetic nervous system’s “storms” and imagine the “safe place” that helps the body become more relaxed. With repeated practice, you will begin to notice an increased ability to tolerate pain. Research has shown meditation and guided imagery to be complementary aids in your MS tool kit.

Author’s Resources

Visit the Health Journeys website at for a sampling of CD/MP3s available, supporting research, and personal stories testifying to it benefits. Mayo Clinic and John Hopkins are two of many reputable sponsors. Belleruth Naparstek’s Three Principles of Guided Imagery. MP3 downloads are available. I recommend the MP3 titled Stress. See Meditation in Depth. There is much information and research. One project in process is on stress reduction for people with multiple sclerosis.