The impact of stress
It’s normal for everyone to experience stress from time to time. But for people living with multiple sclerosis (MS), it can have a bigger impact on everyday quality of life. Stress is a key topic often discussed as a problem by healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients across the MS community, so we thought it would be beneficial to create an article that explored the science behind stress and how it can be linked to MS, offering advice to help people living with MS to navigate through stressful periods in their lives.
Stress and MS are connected
Stress is a normal part of life for everyone. But in addition to coping with the usual everyday stresses, people with MS also have to face the unpredictability of MS and the worries associated with the condition itself. MS can place an added pressure on many areas of life, such as friendships and relationships, work, and family life.
As well as the extra stresses faced by people living with MS, there’s research to suggest that stress itself can worsen MS symptoms and cause the onset of relapses. Exposure to stress has long been suspected as a factor that can aggravate MS and there are many studies showing that stressful life events are associated with an increased risk of MS exacerbation in the weeks or months following onset of a stress trigger. Research has also shown that stress management programmes have been effective at slowing down new areas of MS damage (lesions) as seen using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
However, not all studies have produced the same results and some have found the impact of stress on MS disease activity to be quite small.1 Further research in this area is needed to draw more concrete conclusions about the probable link between stress and MS.
Given the added stress that MS can impose on someone’s life and the impact that stress itself might have on the onset and severity of MS symptoms, people living with MS can enter a vicious cycle.
How to reduce the impact of stress on your life
It’s impossible to eliminate stress completely, but there are management techniques you can adopt to try and avoid stress as much as possible.3 Why not try some of our suggestions below:
Use relaxation techniques
Set some time aside each day to relax and practice relaxation techniques such as mindfulness. Techniques like this have been shown to be effective at helping people with long-term conditions to manage stress.
If you can, stay as active as possible and take time out for activities you enjoy. Exercise and fresh air are great ways of reducing stress and taking your mind off other things in your life, whether you have MS or not.
Ask others in your life for help when things become too much and you find yourself struggling to cope with stress. Discussing your worries with others rather can help to take the weight off your shoulders. Even if they can't change the source of your stress, another person's point of view can put show situations in a whole new perspective. You know what they say – a problem shared, is a problem halved!
MS is unpredictable. So having a plan in place for everyday activities should you experience a flare-up could reduce your stress should your MS get in the way. Let people who need to know that there is a small chance that MS could change your plans should the unexpected happen.
Keep a diary
Over the course of a few months, note down everything in your life that causes you stress. This can help you to identify the sources of your stress, thereby helping you to better avoid and deal with similar situations in the future.
Everyone deals with stress in different ways. Some people become withdrawn, while others lash out, and some can have problems sleeping and eating. On the other hand, there are people who claim to thrive on stress! This is why there are no universal techniques for managing stress that will suit everyone. Take these tips as a starting point and figure out what works best for you.
If you’re struggling to cope with stress, talk to your neurologist or MS nurse. They will be more than happy to help and offer you the support you need to get back on track.
- Prof G’s MS-Selfie – Case study: stress as trigger of relapses. Available at: https://gavingiovannoni.substack.com/p/case-study-stress-as-trigger-of-relapses?s=r . Accessed March 2022.
- MS Trust – Stress. Available at: https://mstrust.org.uk/a-z/stress#. Accessed March 2022.
- MS Society – Stress and anxiety. Available at: https://www.mssociety.org.uk/about-ms/signs-and-symptoms/mental-health/stress-and-anxiety. Accessed March 2022.
- Riise T et al. Stress and the risk of multiple sclerosis. Neurology 2011; 76: 1866–1871.
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