Identifying the Effects of Stress on MS

Five different kinds of MS stress and how you can reduce them

Patient Expert

Stress is a daily fact of life. At times, it keeps us focused and alert. In response to situations perceived to be potentially dangerous, the adrenal glands release stress hormones to give you the mental and physical boost you need to react quickly and steer out of harm’s way.

People living with MS may experience different kinds of stress: physical stress, emotional stress, social stress, economic stress, and cognitive distress.

Physical stress

Physiological changes caused by MS — such as weakness, spasticity, imbalance, or loss of coordination — can increase physical demands on the body. It is important to be aware of physical changes caused by MS and to work to combat them so that the changes themselves do not create additional problems. Staying active and working with a physical therapist or trainer are ways you can reduce the physical stress caused by MS.

Regular exercise reduces the effects of stress hormones on the body and can help prevent physical deconditioning. Strength training helps to build and maintain muscle which is necessary when you live with MS. Working with a healthcare provider to learn how to adjust to changing abilities and how to properly use assistive devices can be invaluable.

Emotional and cognitive stress

Emotional stress can be caused by the uncertainty and unpredictable nature of the disease. It can also result from physical changes occurring in the brain due to neurological damage. Depression, anxiety, and cognitive dysfunction are common symptoms of MS. When you are feeling emotionally stressed, it doesn’t take much to trigger a physical reaction.

Working with a mental health professional, such as a licensed clinical social worker, can help you deal with many different types of stressors, recognize and express emotions, and develop productive coping and problem-solving skills. A neuropsychologist can conduct testing to identify specific areas of cognitive dysfunction you may experience and suggest ways to work around these problem areas to maximize your cognitive skills.

Depression versus emotional stress

Note that depression is more than just a reaction to emotional stressors. Depression is a condition best treated with a combination of pharmaceutical and cognitive-behavioral therapies under the guidance of a professional. Common symptoms of depression that overlap with signs of emotional stress include chronic irritability or resentment, feeling down in the dumps, boredom, excessiveness nervousness or anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, nightmares, or feeling numb or detached.

Signs of stress

Thought-related signs of stress include excessive worrying, distractibility, difficulty making decisions, and expecting the worse to happen much of the time. Physical signs of stress include muscle tightness, clammy hands or sweating, dry mouth, fatigue, headache, irregular heartbeat, shallow breathing, a lump in the throat feeling, stomach aches, constipation, diarrhea, or nausea, and sleeping too much or too little.

Social stress

Social relationships and obligations can cause stress when you live with a chronic illness. Examples of social stressors may include not feeling accepted or understood by those around you. Although MS is primarily an invisible disease, the use of assistive devices might make one feel conspicuous, isolated, and insecure. Tell members of your health care team and your family how you feel and together find a way to make social interactions less stressful.

Special events can be extraordinarily stressful for people with MS who experience fatigue and are sensitive to overstimulation. Planning an exit strategy ahead of time may make attending events more enjoyable when you know that if it gets to be too much, you can remove yourself to a calmer and quieter environment and return when you’re ready.

Economic stress

MS is an unpredictable and disruptive disease. It is not only expensive, it can also affect your ability to stayed employed. Workplace accommodations may help as your physical or cognitive needs change, but note that not all employers must abide by ADA laws. Research the law carefully to know your rights. Work with financial, tax, and retirement professionals to help maximize your resources and make sure that your financial matters are in order.

Ways to reduce stress

Reducing stress is often not as simple as taking 10 slow, deep breaths. It may require working with a number of professionals to address specific aspects of a stressful life. In fact, you may not even realize the source of some stressors until someone else helps you to unravel the rug that is covering up the root of the problem.

In the meantime, try these eight simple stress reducers to help release the hold stress may have on you. If taking 10 deep breaths doesn’t work today, try again tomorrow; it may have greater effect with repeated efforts. Check out the National MS Society’s booklet, Taming Stress in Multiple Sclerosis (pdf), in which there are several excellent physical and visualization exercises designed to reduce stress.