Holidays, MS and Stress

As we jump into the mix of stringing holiday decorations, cookie baking and all the other fa-la-la-ing we do this time of year, it can be hard to keep the stress level low.  There’s only so much time in these days of merriment to stop, relax, throw in some deep breathing and maybe even strike a yoga pose or two.

Despite what the experts tell us, stress-free holidays are just not possible.  Even if you do nothing over the holidays, the odds are pretty good that you will feel stress because you are doing nothing.  This has to do with people in general and not just those of us living with Multiple Sclerosis.  I don’t care who you are – holidays and stress are companions that can’t be separated, unless you are a wide-eyed child whose only concern is whether Santa will find their house.  Never mind that thought …. this time is  very stressful for the children left worrying if they have been good enough.

Recent research about stress and its relationship to MS, shows that stress doesn’t cause the exacerbations it is often blamed for – the stress can make us feel temporarily worse but it isn’t permanent.  Those of us with MS don’t hold a monopoly on the ill-effects of stress because it can hit anyone. Too much stress, whether you have MS or not, can make us feel worse – stress can cause increased heart rate, depression, irritability and lack of concentration, among other things.

The beneficial side of stress that isn’t talked about much is that it also has a role in helping to keep us healthy.  It is even known that reasonable amounts of stress makes the immune system stronger, and helps to strengthen the heart and circulatory system.  Stress produces the chemicals in our body that can help to motivate us.  Stress gets such a bad rap, but when it is found in small doses, it can be a good thing.

For those of us with MS, we’re left wondering why can large doses of stress make us feel wretched?  What the research suggests is if we are in the beginning of a flare and don’t yet know it, stress can amplify the symptoms and make the exacerbation obvious, but the stress on its own doesn’t cause the problem. I repeat ---- stress on its own does not cause a relapse.

Larger doses of stress create a strain on our body – just like it does on everyone else- but our body is much more sensitive to these changes and we have temporary, physical negative responses to stress thanks to our mis-wired central nervous system.  Fortunately, most of those changes pass in a short amount of time.

So why does my MS act up when the holiday stress is being piled on like snow on the rooftops?  Just like I love to blame everything on stress or my MS, the truth is, I am still susceptible to the same problems and reactions as everyone else. The next time you feel stress is your burden to carry alone, ask your partner or family or even the strangers in the grocery store checkout line, and you are likely to hear them also voice concerns about the stress of the holidays.  We are not alone with this one – this is definitely not the easiest time of the year.

As we push through the holidays leading up to New Year’s, be sure to take some time to relax and lessen your stress – at least sit for a few moments and enjoy just looking at the decorations and eat an extra cookie or two.  I might even sing a few lines of Deck the Halls and see how fa-la-la-la feels.  And then I’ll ask the family to join in and share a few less stressed moments with me.  We can all use it.

Wishing you well,


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