An illustration of a blue hand on a yellow background holding out in from of a person to ward off squiggly scribbles signifying stress.

MS and the Problem(s) with Stress Management

Stress management is a crucial part of life with multiple sclerosis (MS) because when you mix even a tiny amount of stress with MS, the results can be catastrophic. Just like how it's almost common knowledge among the MS community that heat is bad for MS and should be avoided, most people are well-aware of the fact that exposure to stress is a really great way to cause symptoms to start flaring up. Despite how obvious this may be to many people, most struggle to find a way to manage, reduce, or avoid it. I would say this is primarily due to two main reasons; a lack of emphasis from medical professionals on the importance of learning to manage stress and a lack of a decent variety of educational resources in the MS community.

Dealing with stress

Now, I'm not saying that these things aren't out there. Some doctors do educate their patients on just how damaging stress can be to people living with MS, but unfortunately, the majority of people have very different experiences with their doctors. This means that some people have to search a lot harder than others to find the same answers. So the next thing most people probably do is turn to the internet in search of advice. There is a lot out there, but what I've noticed is that most sources online offer pretty much the same one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with stress. The problem here is, everyone is different, and just like medication, what works for one does not work for all.

Addressing the core source, not just the symptoms

For me, stress has always been my biggest trigger, more so than heat even. My MS has always been really sensitive to it, and so, I've spent a lot of time over the years trying to learn about how I can better manage it since the best advice I've so far received from a neurologist is... to try NOT to stress. "Oh! So hold on, you're telling me that the best way to not let stress get the best of me is to just NOT stress? How have I never thought of that? Try NOT to stress; it's so simple! Well, OK then, problem solved!" As I mentioned above, there is an abundance of articles online about "how to manage stress," but most of them seem to tell you the same thing. Eat healthy, exercise, meditate, get enough sleep, and when all else fails, talk to someone. Those are all fundamental aspects of dealing with stress in a healthy manner, but they don't exactly address the core source of stress, just the symptoms of it.

Identifying my top sources of stress

So the first thing I decided to do was what I think everyone looking to reduce levels of stress in their life should do. I tried to identify my top sources of stress. For example, for almost all of my adult life, I've felt overwhelmed by my not being able to keep up with the pace of the world. There's always so much that needs to get done and never enough time to do it all, especially with the weight of fatigue slowing me down! It seems that my to-do list is always growing at a much faster rate than I can possibly complete it, which causes me to feel overcome with stress, which then quickly turns into feeling powerless and then stressed out.

Simple changes to my routine

So instead of continuing to look up ways to reduce stress, I started to look up ways to manage the things that I've identified as sources of stress in the first place. Sticking to my above example, I started looking into how I could manage my life better. I've since begun to spend the first hour of my morning creating a to-do list and then scheduling everything on that list into different "blocks" of time throughout the day. "Between 9:00 am and 11:00 am, I only need to focus on calling the pharmacy, doing laundry, and checking my email." This simple change to my routine has made an enormous difference in my life. I've found that I can get so much more done when I have a plan of attack, and because I've carefully scheduled my day, I'm not stressing over whether I'm on track to finishing everything I need to get done for the day. I can breathe a little easier because I know I'll be fine so long as I complete the small number of tasks that I assigned to the block of time I'm currently in.

Stress-management needs to be tailored to the individual

This is just one example of the many things I've done to try to manage my stress better, but it's probably my best example of how stress-management needs to be tailored to the individual. Managing everything that needs to get done in my life and the time I have to get it done in is one of my top sources of stress, but I assume there are a lot of people who don't consider that to be a problem for them in the least. And maybe whatever they consider to be a huge source of stress isn't even a big deal to me. Again, everyone is different.

Identifying your own personal stressors

Another way to look at it is to think of stress like pain; a paper cut causes pain, and so does a broken leg, but a bandaid is only going to solve one of those problems. There are many sources of stress in life, and you can't expect the solution for one to solve them all, just like you can't expect a bandaid to solve all your injuries. The key is identifying your unique sources of stress and then developing ways to manage them. Because that is so much easier said than done (especially when you're feeling overwhelmed by all the chaos in life with MS), I really do think we need better resources to help people learn how to identify their own personal stressors.

Is stress a major MS trigger for you? If so, how do you manage your stress? What advice would you give to someone living with MS who is feeling overwhelmed by stress? Share your thoughts, techniques, and advice below!

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