Because Avoiding Stress Is Impossible...
Last updated: August 2023
I’m willing to bet the vast majority of people with MS have been told this by their healthcare provider at least once: "Avoid stress."
Seems simple, right?
Life is stress
The things that cause stress in one’s life – whether they have MS or are perfectly healthy – are also the things that define life itself:
Not to put too fine a point on it, but:
- A happy marriage still faces stress
- Children who behave well still cause stress
- A much-loved career invites opportunities for stress
- Family members may bring stress without realizing it
- You can pass tests in school and still be stressed
- If you live where natural disaster is common, even the most beautiful day could become stressful
Avoiding stress is impossible. So why do doctors say this to us?
What doctors really mean
I think what they mean to say is twofold:
- We need to avoid unnecessary stress
- We need to practice more effective stress management
What’s unnecessary stress?
Every day, you make choices that can either add or subtract stress. For instance, in one hour’s time you can:
- Watch something on TV
- Do chores
- Call a friend
- Go for a stroll
- Engage in social media banter
- Give yourself a manicure and pedicure
- Listen to a podcast
- Cook a meal
Even seemingly relaxing activities can bring stress
Note: None of these activities are stress-free. Case in point:
- TV brings stress in the form of "breaking news," high-stakes game shows, scary movies, and intense dramatic series
- Chores can be painful or difficult
- Calling a friend could be stressful if that friend is suffering or you’re angry with them about something
- Going for a stroll could be stressful if your MS acts up and you lose your legs, your balance, or your bowels
- Even a manicure and pedicure could be stressful if tremors kick in
- Listening to a podcast may not be soothing if the content is stressful
- Cooking is a meditative act for some and a chore for others
Avoiding unnecessary stress with MS
You can avoid unnecessary stress, however. For instance, you can:
- Choose pleasant TV shows that make you laugh or leave you feeling upbeat or hopeful.
- Get help with chores.
- Seek out supportive friends who give you warm fuzzies. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to help friends in need, but practice caution around those who’ve fallen into a negative tailspin. They may need more than you can offer them.
- Don’t overdo a stroll if you’re not feeling 100 percent. Try stretching at home or simple calisthenics instead.
- Turn off social media, or choose to engage only with life-affirming people and share positive content wherever you can.
- If a manicure or pedicure is difficult, find another way to pamper yourself, such as aromatherapy, a warm lavender bath with Epsom salts, or a hot cup of nourishing soup.
- Find comedy programs or intellectually stimulating and inspiring podcasts to listen to.
- If you struggle to boil water, you can still assemble delicious meals like Buddha bowls, salads, sandwiches, and simple flatbread pizzas.
See where I’m heading? It’s not that you’ll ever be able to avoid stress, but you can still disinvite unnecessary stress.
How to manage stress
I’m no psychotherapist, but I’ve learned a great deal from Nar-Anon meetings attended for a loved one who’s battled years-long addiction.
While I’m not religious, I think the serenity prayer offers a great building block for managing uninvited stress.
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference
This simple edict calls out the mistaken belief that you have control over anything.
As a person with MS, you know firsthand how little control you command over your own body. You can do "all the things" to defend against flares and still get them. You can eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, and still encounter symptoms.
How you respond to stress
Dealing with stress, then, amounts to a certain amount of surrender to those situations that you cannot control, which will happen regardless. How you respond to these stressful encounters is something you can control.
When stress hits, check your initial response. How much emotional and physical energy will it cost you? Is it worth it? At the end of the day, will you regret giving it your energy? If you can fix a problem or avoid creating unnecessary stress, you will feel much better doing so.
For all the bazillion stressful situations that life throws your way, you can still proactively choose how to address them. Will your health pay a price for it? Only you can make this determination.
"Let it be," the Beatles sang. "Let it go," comes the line from Frozen.
I say, "Let’s get on with the act of living." Choose wisely, my friends.
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