Facing Depression and Anxiety with MS

Strategies for navigating through both illnesses

Patient Expert
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As the days get shorter and the sun becomes veiled by the autumn clouds, it is easy to become melancholy and wistful for the brash brightness of summer. Although summer’s heat can also chase indoors many of us living with multiple sclerosis so that we don’t even get to fully enjoy the beautiful light. The lack of exposure to external light can result in increased internal darkness. This physical and metaphorical darkness can lead to depression and emotional fatigue, at least that is the way it has been for me for decades.

A rollercoaster of emotions

When I was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder in college, treatment suggestions included medication and talk therapy. Medication was easy enough to take, but talk therapy (at that time) proved to be less than helpful. At the on-campus student health center, I was assigned to speak with a graduate student working on her master’s degree in social work. She suggested I try things such as take a warm bath, put on my favorite lotion (I didn’t use lotion), take a long walk, etc. At the time, these suggestions sounded ridiculous to this over-stressed and time-deficient doctoral student in one of the most rigorous music programs in the country. I didn’t go back for more advice.

Several years of seasonal emotional rollercoasters morphed into year-round gloominess and dread. The monster in the corner — how I came to view my depression spirit — would come out to taunt me. The bigger it got, the more I felt alone, sad, hopeless, and powerless to do anything about it. If you were to present me with a depression screening questionnaire, I could basically check off most of the items.

Depression and anxiety are MS symptoms.

More importantly, I began to learn that gently accepting my emotional ups and downs resulted in reduced mood swings and seemingly impossible lows.

By the time I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I had been fighting depression off and on for years. Medication helped to smooth out the rough edges, but the monster was always there, hiding under the surface, just ready to balloon into a giant and stomp on all happiness. My neurologist now believes that depression may have been one of my earliest MS symptoms.

It wasn’t until I had been living with MS for several years that anxiety became an issue. There was one spring that I was having so much trouble fighting anxiety that I finally shared my challenges with my neuro nurse. Once again, medication helped; but more importantly, I began to learn that gently accepting my emotional ups and downs resulted in reduced mood swings and seemingly impossible lows.

Lean into the curve of depression

I have attended numerous counseling sessions over the past 15 years during which I have learned many lessons. Here are some of the most important lessons I carry with me when things begin to spin out of control.

  1. Be patient with yourself and honor your emotions.
  2. Allow yourself to experience the emotions and don’t try to stuff them down deep. Ignoring the emotions allows them to simmer and bubble over into other parts of your life.
  3. Let someone know how you feel; talk about it. Bringing negative emotions into the light helps to “let some steam out” so to speak and reduce their destructive power.
  4. Exercise, meditation, and self-care really do help to reduce the effects of depression and anxiety.

Sometimes when I begin to feel that my emotions have become like black ice on the road, I remember what you should do to regain control of the car. Turn your steering wheel into the direction of spin — lean into the curve — not away from it, to reestablish tire grip on the road and steer yourself out of danger.