Managing MS and stress amongst the COVID-19 pandemic

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COVID 19 Article

By Jacobo Santamarta Barral:

Jacobo Santamarta Barral, from Spain, is one of our advisors here at MS One to One. We spoke to him about how he has been managing his own stress and mental health during COVID-19, and what advice he has for others who are in the same position.

How has COVID-19 affected your mental health?

Although I’ve been diagnosed with MS for some time, I’ve never struggled with mental health issues and have been lucky enough to carry on with my life without the condition affecting my mind.

But since COVID-19, my mental health has been challenged. At the beginning it did not affect me too intensely, as my diagnosis did not allow me to go out that much before, so I got used to keeping myself occupied at home. However, as time went by, I felt the relative freedom of choice I once had before the pandemic, to go out or not, was taken away from me, and this has had some effect on me over the last few months.

Have you started doing anything during the COVID period that you weren’t doing before?

The COVID-19 situation made me feel inspired to be more productive at the beginning. Because I had more time, I said to myself I was going to learn new things that I wasn’t able to before the pandemic, but as time has gone by, the pandemic doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and I am feeling more fatigued as I struggle to find things to do. Summer is  the time where I‘d like to be going out in the sunshine and getting out of the house. But unfortunately, that isn’t always possible during this period of uncertainty.

What aspects of COVID-19 make you more anxious as a person living with MS?

Since I have problems with my breathing, everything related to losing my breath or having to be connected to a machine to breathe increases my anxiety. I think at the start of COVID I began to feel more worried in general, and the more worried I am, the worse my symptoms get which is why I am now trying to reduce my stress. I tend not to watch too much TV or read every story in the newspaper as it increases my stress levels. I prefer to live in my own bubble. The long-term side effects of getting the virus myself is also concerning, but I try to keep my mind balanced in a situation like this.

Support networks are important at a time like this. Could you tell us about your support network, who is there for you when you need support?

My family is always there for me, and I know I can talk to them about my fears and about my situation. And I’ve also started video-calls with a psychologist to help me deal with any questions I may have. The key for me is to find ways to cope with COVID-19 and adapt personally whilst receiving ongoing support from my family and doctors.

How have you taken care of your emotional health and mental wellbeing during COVID-19?

Learning techniques of mindfulness and self-awareness has been very helpful. It’s enabled me to have more control over my thinking, and to worry less about the virus. I think that it’s important to have a positive approach and not focus on the negatives.

However, it is still stressful to think about the progression of COVID and the economic and political impact that it has had, but I try not to spend time worrying about things outside of my control.

Do you have a personal philosophy that has helped you to overcome the stress brought on by the pandemic?

I believe blissful ignorance is the best way of dealing with a situation like this. I don’t mean that I keep an ignorant attitude, but that I try to keep my mind busy.

Reading, for example, helps me not to overthink. It is better for me to become invested in the stories I read in novels and comics, rather than the news, which often feels like it’s only focusing on the negative.

How has your support been from your MS healthcare team during COVID-19?

Any questions I have had I’ve found that I can get an answer from the necessary professionals just by calling them. And the times I had to go to the hospital for my treatment, it’s mostly been safe enough for me to visit. But in other countries, people may have had a different experience.

I didn’t feel overly worried, as I knew from the beginning that if I would have had a question about something relating to the virus and my MS my healthcare team would have informed me what to do, and how to do it.

I have been told that there are varying risk factors for people with MS depending on a number of things but as I have not had symptoms of COVID specifically,, that provides some sense of security and comfort.

Do you see telemedicine as an efficient form of MS care?

I do, but only for regular check-ups, not for when a patient needs to discuss a new symptom or before they start taking a new medicine as these conversations are much more important and effective when they are face to face.

I did have an appointment that was supposed to be in Madrid, and I would have had to get up early and travel, but instead I was able to do the appointment virtually, which was very helpful.

If you could tell your doctor or neurologist one thing about your mental health that has been affected due to COVID-19, what would it be?

I guess it’s the lack of clear information that makes the person with MS feel more vulnerable, even though that’s not necessarily the case. But this is something that wasn’t clear at the start of the pandemic.

It is difficult for doctors to provide patients with information to make people with MS feel less afraid, as it isn’t readily available. But from what I can tell, healthcare professionals have done their best to let the MS community know that they are supporting us and they are always trying to come up with solutions, They try and make the life of the patient a bit easier – which is appreciated. 

Is there any advice you would give to the MS community based on your experiences during this time?

Try to keep calm and ask for professional help if you need it. And know that we are all in this together.

I would also recommend trying new things, I am trying to do this myself. The pandemic has given me the opportunity to step back and listen and learn a lot of things during this time, about myself and about my surroundings, for all its negatives, the pandemic has changed the way I think for the better. In the grand scheme of things, I am lucky. And others with MS might find that in some ways, they are too.

For any further information around COVID and MS, please visit the links below.
https://www.mssociety.org.uk/care-and-support/ms-and-coronavirus-care-and-support#ms%20risk
https://www.msif.org/news/2020/02/10/the-coronavirus-and-ms-what-you-need-to-know/

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