Written by Kimberly Holland | Published on August 5, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on August 5, 2014
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases attack your body without cause. In the case of MS, your immune system attacks and destroys the protective lining (myelin) that covers your nerves. As the myelin wears away, communication between your brain and nerves becomes more difficult and frequently interrupted.
While MS can profoundly affect your physical health, it can also take a serious toll on your mental health. Depression, stress, anxiety, and mood swings are all common in people dealing with advancing MS, but you don’t have to suffer silently. Here are some ways to reduce stress, create a healthier mindset, and maintain a better quality of life.
Emotional Health and Multiple Sclerosis
If you have MS, you know that each day brings with it new challenges and new questions. The constant unknowing and worrying can drive even the most stable person to become anxious, stressed, and even fearful. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the most common emotional changes you may experience include:
depressive symptoms and episodes
grieving for the loss of a “normal” life
stress and anxiety
changes in appetite
weight loss and gain
Coping with Depression
Depression affects people with MS in two ways. First, coping with the disease may cause depression. Your changing body and mind can affect how you feel about yourself and your life. This, ultimately, may lead to depression.
MS may potentially result in the development of depression. As MS attacks and tears down the myelin, your nerves may no longer be able to correctly transmit the electrical impulses that affect your mood.
The good news is that depression can be treated. In most cases, doctors will prescribe a combination of therapy and antidepressant medication. This therapy may be one-on-one with a licensed professional. Some doctors, however, suggest that patients with MS meet in group therapy sessions with other people who also have MS.
In small doses, stress can be healthy—it promotes faster responses and can even boost immunity. Prolonged and unresolved stress can have the opposite effect, however. For people with MS, you may even begin experiencing new or worsened symptoms because of how stress affects your disease and body.
By its very nature, MS is unpredictable. It can change and worsen without warning. There are several other stressful factors, including the invisibility of symptoms, the financial concerns associated with covering treatment, and the constant adjustments needed for the progressing disease. Life with MS can feel overwhelming for these reasons and more.
Stress can be treated. In fact, a 2012 study found that MS patients who underwent an eight-week stress management program that combined relaxation breathing and muscle relaxation techniques experienced less stress and fewer symptoms of depression than MS patients.
Regular exercise can help alleviate stress, too. Talk with your doctor or physical therapist about ways you can be physically active without aggravating your symptoms or setting back progress.
In moments of great stress, you may need to simply let it out. Expressing your anger or frustration can often help you relieve stress. However, it should not be your primary form of stress reduction.
When you’ve had a few moments to calm yourself, approach the situation as if you are making a pre-game plan for the next time you feel this way. Ask yourself:
Why was I so angry?
What caused me to feel so frustrated?
Was this something that could have prevented?
What can I do to keep it from happening again?
Prepare yourself with a game plan in the event you find yourself experiencing similar feelings in the future.
Ways to Reduce Stress and Calm Down
There is no one right way to relax. “Relaxing” may mean something different to everyone. Reading, listening to music, cooking, or any number of other activities may help you feel calm and in control.
Deep breathing is one activity that can reduce tension, relax your body, and help your mind feel more at ease. Deep breathing can also be used when you anticipate a stressful period—for example, if you’re nervous about going into public, being around a lot of people, or getting back test results. Deep breathing only takes a few minutes, doesn’t require special equipment, and can be used at any point when you need to feel calm.
Yoga combines breathing and gentle stretching to help release mental and physical tension. If MS hinders your physical range, you may still be able to practice modified poses to help you stretch, relax, and let go of stress. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist before you begin yoga.