Mind-Body Basics for People With MS
Learning how to get a handle on stress (so it doesn’t manhandle you!) not only helps you manage multiple sclerosis symptoms, it may help you prevent them too.
Mindy Eisenberg was just a child when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. But she remembers like it was yesterday.
“The philosophy was very different at the time,” Eisenberg, 55, says. “My mother was told not to move, to stay as sedentary as possible.”
Over the next 25 years, Eisenberg watched her mother’s condition slowly deteriorate, until she was largely limited to using a wheelchair or staying in bed. She eventually resorted to a nursing home.
A lot has changed in the decades since Eisenberg’s mother was diagnosed. Not only has modern medicine improved the treatments available for MS, but there's also a much more holistic approach. “Now doctors tell you that you absolutely should move and do whatever you can to stay active,” says Eisenberg, who lives in Franklin, MI. We now know that in addition to improving overall health and quality of life, exercise can directly combat the symptoms of MS.
There’s also a growing awareness of how mind-body therapies can also help people living with MS, says Eisenberg, who runs a nonprofit group called Yoga Moves MS, which offers MS patients yoga and other complementary therapies like mindfulness meditation to help manage their symptoms and reduce stress.
How Exactly Can Mind-Body Therapy Help?
The term “mind-body therapy” refers to a group of healing techniques that can induce relaxation and improve overall health and well-being.
“Mind-body interventions may be an incredibly helpful, low-cost, and low-risk way to help cope with stress and anxiety,” says Kathy Zackowski, Ph.D., an occupational therapist and scientist who serves as senior director of patient management, care, and rehabilitation research for the National MS Society.
Numerous studies have shown the mind can have a big impact on a person’s physical symptoms, Zackowski explains. Stress and anxiety in particular can play a role in increasing MS symptoms, and many people may have a flare-up during especially trying times, she says.
“That’s why mindfulness and resilience training may be really important, because if we can develop strategies to harness the strength of the mind, maybe we can improve our ability to function or temper how our body reacts,” Zackowski explains. “More research is needed in this area, but one goal of such studies would be to see if mind-body therapy may help slow the progress of MS, in addition to improving symptoms.”
Still, even if new science reveals promising results from mind-body therapies, it won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, Zackowski says. You may need to try several different techniques to see what works for you.
Want to Give Mind-Body Therapy a Try? Start Here
“We don’t know that there’s one mind-body strategy that works better than all the others, so it’s important that people figure out what feels good to them,” Zackowski says.
Tai chi or qi gong, which are both forms of moving meditation
Guided imagery, in which you’re guided in imagining a relaxing scene or series of experiences
Aromatherapy, which uses the scent of concentrated plant oils, known as essential oils, to improve feelings of well-being
Mindfulness techniques, which may simply involve being present in the moment or focusing on your breath
“We’re all different, and it may be that meditation doesn’t speak to you,” Zackowski says. “You may need something different, like yoga, where you move your body. Or some people may like being quiet and listening to music or having someone talk them through a meditation session.”
After seeing her mother’s experience with MS and realizing how yoga may have helped her, Eisenberg was drawn to a practice called adaptive yoga. This style of yoga uses props such as blocks, wraps, bolsters, and chairs to help people with balance problems, limited flexibility, or those who become easily fatigued. It can accommodate nearly any skill level, Eisenberg says.
“The idea is to do what fits your body on any particular day,” she says. “One day you may feel more tired, so we may be doing things slower and working on more restorative poses. Another day you may feel more energetic and be able to do some traditional poses or some adaptive poses with more energy. But you benefit from both.”
Trevis Gleason, 53, who was diagnosed with MS in 2001, is a big believer in daily mind-body practices. For him, it may take the form of a contemplative walk with his dog or gardening in the shade. He also enjoys doing yoga and practices mindfulness and breathing techniques.
On days when Gleason is feeling particularly fatigued or struggling with other MS symptoms, simply sitting somewhere with a view, practicing mindfulness by being in the moment, and observing the world around him helps him feel more relaxed and at ease.
“Anything that takes my mind to a calm place is enjoyable and beneficial,” says Gleason, who splits his time between Ireland and Seattle. “For me, it’s about finding quality of life. I often say, ‘On my worst MS days, the best thing is a good window,’ so I can stay connected and see that life is going on around me.”
Think of Mind-Body Therapies as Complementary (not Alternative) Medicine
Healthcare providers specializing in MS prefer to consider these therapies as strategies to be used in conjunction with traditional medicine, such as disease-modifying therapies, which may help slow the progression of MS, and other medication that can help treat acute MS symptoms, says Kathy Costello, C.R.N.P., associate vice president of healthcare access with the National MS Society.
“We don’t like to think of these as alternative treatments that you would use instead of something else,” she says. “We want to use interventions and therapies that work in concert together. So you can use lifestyle changes (like eating a healthy diet and maintaining an exercise routine), complementary interventions (like yoga or meditation), and medications for symptom management.”
Most mind-body therapies are relatively inexpensive with no known side effects, so there’s minimal risk in seeing how they work for you, Zackowski says: “It doesn’t replace modern medicine, but mind-body therapies can prompt people to be more involved in taking charge of their health, rather than simply relying on a physician for treatment.”
Anything that helps you stay in touch with what’s going on with your body and the symptoms or sensations you’re feeling is valuable, Eisenberg adds. That’s true even if it simply helps you learn to be present with the pain, instead of anticipating it’s going to get worse. Yoga and mindfulness meditation are among the most popular and common mind-body therapies that have been found to help people with MS, Costello says. But don’t feel limited to those. If you’d rather try something else, go for it!