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Understanding My Relationship With Stress and MS

Stress is bad. It’s bad for everyone, but it’s really bad for people living with multiple sclerosis (MS). Sometimes stress can cause a temporary flare-up of MS symptoms, but sometimes it can trigger a full-blown exacerbation (relapse). For this reason, it’s vital that anyone living with MS learn how to better navigate the stress in life. Unfortunately, that can be much easier said than done.

How stress affects me and my MS

From day one of my MS journey, stress has been one of my top MS triggers. A little stress can go a long way, and I was terrible at handling it. For example, getting into an argument with someone would almost always result in my spasticity worsening. My legs would become so tight that I could hardly bend them, making it feel like I was walking with two wooden peg legs. Sometimes this would also result in other symptoms flaring up like clonus, visual problems, or extreme fatigue.

Recognizing my two types of stress

Eventually, I realized that there were two main types of stress in my life: stress from things I could control and stress from things I couldn’t. You might be thinking, “No duh, everyone knows that,” but it really did take me a long time to accept. Once I was able to come to terms with the idea that I couldn’t control everything, it became much easier for me to handle my stress. This was a must because it was literally about my health. When it came to treating my MS, I saw the role of stress management to be just as important as diet, exercise, and medication.

Identifying my stressors

As I do with most things in life, I started with a list. This list was divided into things I could control and things I couldn’t. I wrote down everything that was causing me stress so that I could more easily see and address them. Moving the chaos of stressful thoughts in my head to an external piece of paper also gave me a small sense of control and calmed me down a bit, which is why I still write these lists today.

Dealing with the stress I can control

First, let’s look at an example of a source of stress that I can control: going to the store. What was once a simple trip to pick a few things up is now an almost guaranteed experience of sensory overload. As my vision starts to blur and my sensitivity to sound increases, my world turns into a chaotic mess of colors, shapes, movements, and noise. Sometimes this feeling goes away by the time I get home, but other times it takes me a while to recover, meaning my day is essentially over. So how could I manage this particular problem? Simple: by shopping online. I can get everything I need at my own pace without the stress of going to the store.

It’s not always that easy

Of course, much of the stress in life isn’t the result of something we can control. When looking for stress management advice, people often advise you to focus on what you can control in these situations - your reaction. I really do try to be self-aware of how I respond to things, but it’s not always that easy, especially when you’re already feeling terrible due to MS.

Sometimes I just don’t have it in me to slow down, take a deep breath, and think, so I end up letting myself take the easy route and simply find a way to ignore the problem. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Well, not really, because the problem is still there, eating away at my subconscious.

Slow down and think

I can’t pretend like I know how to best handle stress. I’m better at it than I once was, but I’m still not good at it. It can still have terrible effects on my ability to manage my MS. All I can say for sure is that everyone living with MS would benefit from being taught healthy stress management practices. I imagine this alone would have a massive impact on people’s quality of life and overall health.

So, the best bit of advice I can leave you with is to always try to slow things down and think before you react because how you react can make things better or worse.

How do you manage your stress?

What are some examples of things that commonly stress you out, and how do you deal with them? What advice do you have for others who are living with MS and are struggling with stress? Share in the comments below!

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