Stress is a daily fact of life. It is our response to stressors, which can be healthy or harmful. When living with MS, we may experience physical stress, emotional stress, social stress, economic stress, and cognitive distress. Identifying the source of stress is the first step in altering the physical reaction you may experience in response to stressors. Here are some strategies to help you break the stress cycle.
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Regular exercise reduces the effect of stress hormones and helps you to maintain cardiovascular and physical strength. Consult a health care professional for advice on how to get started. If exercising 30 minutes per day seems overwhelming, start small. Try marching in place or cycling on a stationary bike for one to two minutes/day and gradually increase that amount each week.
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Use stress management techniques
Breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and meditation are excellent stress reducers. Try relaxing your jaw and inhale deeply through your nose; then allow your breath to escape quickly through your nose. Repeat for one minute, gradually slowing your exhale and remembering to keep your jaw relaxed. Also, try yoga, which can help reduce muscle tension, increase flexibility and prepare the body for meditation.
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Get some rest
Develop regular sleep habits. Nothing seems to take its toll on the body and mind more than irregular and unpredictable sleep. If you have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about using a CPAP machine to help you get the oxygen and continuous rest you need during the night. Take regular breaks during the day to combat mental and physical fatigue. Stop and rest BEFORE you feel it necessary to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
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Change your thinking
Negative thinking patterns can exacerbate stressful situations. If you find yourself unable to control your gut response to stressors, it’s a sign that the primitive part of your brain has taken over. Work with an experienced counselor to learn how to tap into higher thought processes when faced with stressful triggers. Doing so will also help you bolster your attitude and respond in a more positive and effective manner.
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Do something you find enjoyable. Take time out to read a book, listen to soothing music, write in a journal (or blog), play with your pet or pursue a hobby. Take a walk and really notice what you see, hear and smell. Clear the clutter from your living and work spaces. A calm, orderly environment helps to encourage a calm, more relaxed mind. Donating excess belongings can help you organize and create more physical space, as well as help others.
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Call a friend. Staying connected with others helps to lift your spirits and reduce stress. Ask for help. Let others know what you need. Build a support network, in-person and/or online. The MS community online is an excellent place to talk with others who understand what you are going through and the challenges you face. Others living with MS can also provide tips on dealing with certain situations. Contact your local MS society for programs in your area.
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Take time to appreciate something good in your life each day. Focusing on the positive in any situation, no matter how small, is a habit which must be cultivated and practiced regularly. Recognizing small successes is a powerful tool in reducing stress. Like the Johnny Mercer song says, “You've got to accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative and latch on to the affirmative. Don't mess with Mister In-Between.”
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Laughter can lower blood pressure and increase the flow of oxygen to the brain. It can reduce stress hormones, as does exercise, and give a mini work-out to abdominal, respiratory, facial, and back muscles. Laughter can also improve alertness, creativity and memory according to Sondra Kornblatt, author of A Better Brain at Any Age: The Holistic Way to Improve Your Memory, Reduce Stress, and Sharpen Your Wits (Conari Press, 2009).
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No one strategy will be singularly effective in helping you to reduce stress. Try several techniques to find ones which work for you. Repeat strategies to help increase their effectiveness. Also, check out the National MS Society’s downloadable booklet, Taming Stress in Multiple Sclerosis (pdf), which includes several excellent physical and visualization exercises you can use to help reduce stress.