Cleaning Out the Emotional Clutter of MS

by Lisa Emrich Patient Advocate

Over time, houses can become messy and cluttered. Heavy drapes keep out winter drafts, but block the cleansing light of the sun. As springtime breezes over the windowsill, cobwebs flutter in the corners. Until light illuminates the cobwebs and dust bunnies, they are too easy to ignore, allowing them grow into a fierce filament army.

In the past, I have described my own depression as a monster that hides in the corners. Most of the time small and miniature, the monster can be easily ignored. But allow it to grow unnoticed in the darkness and the mini-monster becomes a beast straining to break free from imaginary chains.

One way to shrink the beast back into the shadows is to shine light upon it. Depression and anxiety do not like to be exposed. They are insidious emotions that gnaw away at your self-esteem and ability to function. Bringing them out into the spotlight helps to reveal their vulnerabilities so that you can neuter them and keep them from multiplying and taking over your inner space.

Many people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. I am one of them. Thousands of research studies have been published regarding MS, depression, and anxiety. The statistics quoted vary considerably, due to differences in the details of the studies, but one thing is consistent–depression and anxiety are more prevalent in people with MS than in the general population.

As part of a systematic review, researchers identified 2,999 articles in the medical literature published between August 1965 and December 2014 that examined depression, anxiety, and MS. Of those, 112 were considered for inclusion based on certain criteria that excluded the vast majority of studies for various reasons. Ultimately only 58 studies, involving 87,756 MS patients, met the criteria to be included in the meta-analysis.

Researchers found consistent evidence of high prevalence rates of depression (30.5 percent) and anxiety (22.1 percent) in people diagnosed with MS. However, there is a difference between clinically significant symptoms of depression and/or anxiety from those related to depressive or anxiety disorders. Subgroup analysis revealed that significant depressive and anxiety symptoms in MS was elevated (35 and 34 percent) compared with disorders (21 and 10 percent).

What that means is that just because you experience the symptoms doesn’t mean that you have a diagnosable mental health disorder. However, with more than one-third of people with MS reporting symptoms, I feel it is important that we bring the subject out into the light and talk about it more openly. Clear out the clutter so to speak.

Dealing with emotions is not as easy and straight forward as spring cleaning. But I’ve found that if I acknowledge the emotions, really take the time and mindfulness to notice that they are there, the negative emotions lose some of their potency while the positive emotions gain strength. Shedding light on the emotions helps to know where to mentally sweep, as long as you do not “sweep” the emotions under your cognitive rug.

Simple steps to begin to clear the mental clutter:

  • Take several slow, deep breaths — pull back the winter curtains and open the windows

  • Close your eyes and go inward — take a really good look around and notice what you find; acknowledging your emotions helps to validate what you may be feeling

  • Seek assistance — recruiting the help of others, e.g., your doctor, medication, a counsellor, friends or loved ones, lifts some of the burden off your shoulders

  • Stay engaged with yourself — keeping on top of clutter as it develops is a lot easier than waiting for piles of “stuff” to build and begin to block your way; gently let go of the belongings or emotions that tend to get in your way

  • Flex your mind-body connection — stretch out, relax, and enjoy the extra space you’ve created; breathe the clean air; and reward yourself for taking care of your home, mentally and physically


Boeschoten RE, Braamse AM, Beekman AT, et al. Prevalence of depression and anxiety in Multiple Sclerosis: A systematic review and meta-analysis

J Neurol Sci. 2017;372:331-341. doi: 10.1016/j.jns.2016.11.067. Epub 2016 Nov 30.

Lisa Emrich
Meet Our Writer
Lisa Emrich

Living with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid Arthritis, Lisa Emrich is an award-winning, passionate patient advocate, health writer, classical musician, and backroad cyclist. Her stories inspire others to live better and stay active. Lisa is author of the blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers. Lisa frequently works with organizations in support of better policies, patient-centered research, and research funding. Lisa serves on HealthCentral’s Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the MSHealthCentral Facebook page.