Gratitude Can Ease the Effects of Multiple Sclerosis

Living with MS might lead us to feel shut out from opportunities the world can offer. Work is in the past. Hope is for others. Where we once imagined moving mountains, we now struggle to move our legs. Where has life gone?

Such serious questions can lead to lethargy and depression. But there is one simple device we can use to start feeling good about life again. We can practice being grateful.

The practice of gratitude

Gratitude is an integral part of what we in MS communities refer to as “staying positive.” As asserted in a recent Harvard Medical School article, feeling and expressing appreciation for past experiences, fond memories, and finding the good in present life can foster positive feelings overall, improving one’s health, ability to deal with adversity, and building strong relationships.1 No matter what level of gratitude a person feels, it can always be nurtured further, made bigger, and applied creatively as it is understood more deeply. Just as in other activities, practice makes it easier.

In an article by Justin Brown for Ideapod where the author discusses several scientific studies, gratitude not only stimulates the mind towards happiness, it physically changes the brain as well.2 The Mindfulness Research Center at UCLA reports that gratitude “literally changes the molecular structure of the brain and keeps the gray matter functioning…”

Improving the quality of everyday life

Brown also mentions a revealing study by lead researcher Robert A. Emmons at UC Davis that tested three groups by having one keep a journal of things they were grateful for, another tracking things that were hassling them, and a third keeping notes of neutral events. After ten weeks, the gratitude group was 25 percent happier than the others and exercised more. In a separate and similar study by Emmons, the gratitude participants "…offered more emotional support to people in their lives than those in the other groups.” In a different study, a group of Chinese researchers found that subjects who showed more gratitude in their daily lives slept better and experienced less depression. The outcome of all the studies Brown covers showed gratitude as a key factor in becoming more positively engaged with the world and improving the quality of everyday life.

In a moving and thought-provoking article by Katie Willard Virant MSW, JD, LSCW,3 her work with chronically ill children revealed through their talks about things they loved – soccer, cats, and best friends – mixed in with talks about the pain of needles and the terrible side effects of medications — showed that although love can’t cure our illnesses “it can make them easier to bear… Even on horrible days when pain is unrelenting and hope is dim, these ‘good things’ we carry within us sustain us by reminding us that we are more than our suffering.”

The pathway to a feel-good place

I can add some anecdotal evidence of my own to support these findings. Years ago whenever I felt trapped in a prolonged emotional rut, I learned from similar articles to attach positive affirmations to the fridge, bathroom mirror, and computer monitor, places where it would easily catch my eye several times a day. Eventually I could more easily go to a feel-good place, think of a lesson learned from a painful social encounter, or see the irony and humor in a hurtful comment. I didn’t always do that automatically, but the pathway was there when I was ready. It still is.

Today, suffering lives cheek-by-jowl with my sunny side. It can for all of us. Like those of the sick children in Virant’s story, good feelings are hovering nearby, ready to fly us away from the pain, reminding us that all in life is not lost.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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