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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!

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

Comments

  • Matt Allen G author
    6 days ago

    I agree, guilt is so corrosive but learning to NOT feel guilty can be really difficult and ultimately leads to stress.

  • CindyLou
    2 weeks ago

    The best thing I’ve learned to do is to say, Sorry but No to any thing I don’t expect to be able to do. Then don’t feel guilty for your answer, or feel you must explain why not. Learning to drop the guilt can be difficult but with practice it gets easier, not feeling the need to explain why you say No, isn’t necessary, but when it’s a good and trusting friend you may want to share the reason. Many can lose a good friend when you turn them down a lot and will think you are trying to avoid them. This will be the time you learn who your real friends are, which in its self can be stressful, but what you really want and need are real friends who are understanding and are on your side and don’t hold your ‘No’ answers against you, none of us chose to have MS and we really want to say Yes more often, even when we know it isn’t possible at that time. It’s so easy to make contracts you can’t keep. This will be the time you find out who your real friends are, they won’t drop you because you can’t keep up with the crowd like you did before your diagnosis. Understanding the why of it, is the sign of a true friend. All this is necessary to do soon after your diagnosis is made, as it isn’t long before you find yourself in this situation. Good Luck and keep yourself in check, your stressing out will be lessened with practice and reduce a lot of immediate stress you may have now.

  • Janus Galante moderator
    2 weeks ago

    CindyLou,
    I think it’s so very important to try not to feel guilty if we have to say no, and to not have to explain. (Which tends to only ADD to the stress!)
    You’re right, you do learn who your true friends are, don’t you?!
    Thanks for commenting!

  • IzzyB
    2 weeks ago

    Thank you for this distinctly important article. People, even some w/ MS (& worse, in the medical field), don’t comprehend that we’re all different. I’ve heard MS referred to as the ‘Snowflake’ disease because no two are exactly alike.

    Blocking times has helped me for a long while. Certain tasks, I leave room for fatigue or whatever else gets in the way.

  • mseverchanging
    2 weeks ago

    Matt, Great article. Need to mail it to Dr X, who is no longer my Dr. First and last appointment. My BP elevated when stressed or pain. He stood across the room, and said he would not write script for medicine xyz, as dangerouse med.
    As most MS patients know, some medicines, you have to outweigh the risks, compared to benefit of medicine. This was the least worrisome med, like a asprin. I am on some “black boxed” medicines. 20 minutes was my limit of showing him insurance copies of other meds that needed refilled. He walked out on me, saying my med list was a mess.
    It was quite clear Zero refills, contact your Dr.

    A good GP understands MS, may not be a expert, but learns as you do. Had that G P for a year, then his boss for three months. This Has happened before, but now can see how some can trigger ME symptoms.

    But On a better note, got to a different facility.
    Dr T, at a university Hospital, took two hours, and made some recommendations I could use. Someone quite interested in his training, and concerned.
    JoeY

  • Selkie
    2 weeks ago

    What a super and informative article. I find the replies also very helpful, particularly about treating ourselves in the way we treat others. I was brought up to treat others the way I would like to be treated and until now it has never dawned on me to apply it to myself. I am struggling with stress at the moment which began two years ago. During a conversation with the Nurse about the fact that I have lost two thirds of my hair. The Nurse then asked me if I had lost hair from my arms and legs, I said that I have and she diagnosed stress as the cause (My blood tests were ok). My days of being able to walk my dogs (which I found got rid of my stress) have long gone and I am at a complete loss to know what to do. There is no indication that the stress will end, only get worse. We are in an awful mess financially, we may lose our rented home, bills mounting with no hope on the horizon. Big hugs to you all.

  • Kalahari
    2 weeks ago

    From my experience with stress and MS I can add:

    MS causes the threshold of things that causes you to stress, go from +100 to -100.

    And once you realise that with MS, even some of the simplest and most mundane tasks can cause stress (and with this stress, symptoms).

    In summary, what I am trying to convey (just struggling to get the idea out in words), ANYTHING can cause stress with MS, do not just look for big stressors.

  • maddog1977
    2 weeks ago

    I have been stress lot because of relationship and friend about their problem not mine i try to ignore their problem

  • robynz
    2 weeks ago

    When invited, I say that I’ll have to see how I feel on the day, but will do my best to be there.

    If it’s a family function and I feel like I have to go, then I’ll leave once I start to feel fatigued. My family and friends know I have MS so they’re very forgiving. If I say I’m leaving cuz I’m getting tired, it’s ok, cuz at least I’ve been.

    I also try to rest as much as I can before the event.

  • Romyinpr@gmail.com
    2 weeks ago

    Yes we are individuals. Thanks for your comments. Well versed, I am longing to move back to the states. Yet, I’m aware of stress making our symptoms worse.

    Humor helps. I’m in the tropics & have to remind myself to stay in polymorphic mode a.k.a. Caribbean time…
    I’ve had MS 30yrs
    Peace Romina

  • Janus Galante moderator
    2 weeks ago

    Thanks Romina,
    your post is appreciated. Humor DEFINITELY helps.
    Hope you’re having beautiful weather where you are!

  • Meets
    2 weeks ago

    What do you do with all the functions you have to be a part of and since you find them difficult but have to have them as if you are not there or are not able to do it the family is disappointed and has a sad face. It is impossible to say no.

  • Janus Galante moderator
    6 days ago

    Meets,
    I’m facing this very issue in a big way this weekend. To the point where I feel I will be letting a best friend down if I DON’T show. (As well as alot of other people!)
    I know how you’re feeling about the guilt of saying no and feeling obligated to go.
    One of the compromises we (my husband and I) make, is to take our own vehicle. That way if I start to feel anxious or “tremor-y” we can leave.
    Another thing we did early on was to share articles with family/friends describing symptoms that I was experiencing such as anxiety, or sensory overload or heat intolerance, in hopes that they would better understand
    WHY I had to do (or not do!) the things I did.
    Don’t know if these tips will help you? I know we’re all different, as are our circumstances, but know that I’m thinking of you and thankful that you reached out here!
    Janus

  • lcal
    1 week ago

    after 30 years of this, I have been less stressed since I finally let go of the words”have to” be somewhere. It has taken a long while for me to realize the difference of “wanting to”,
    “expected to” then adding without guilt thoughts of “will something bad happen to me or to a loved one if I “don’t do”? The answer to that is usually no, therefore if I am struggling that day I’ve learned “I don’t have to”, so I don’t!

  • Janus Galante moderator
    6 days ago

    lcal,
    thanks for weighing in and your helpful tips, it’s greatly appreciated!

  • robynz
    2 weeks ago

    When invited, I say that I’ll have to see how I feel on the day, but will do my best to be there.

    If it’s a family function and I feel like I have to go, then I’ll leave once I start to feel fatigued. My family and friends know I have MS so they’re very forgiving. If I say I’m leaving cuz I’m getting tired, it’s ok, cuz at least I’ve been.

    I also try to rest as much as I can before the event.

  • Janus Galante moderator
    2 weeks ago

    Hi robynz,
    this sounds exactly how my last couple days were handled.
    Thanks for chiming in!

  • SueK
    3 weeks ago

    Manage yourself and your stress in the same ways you would want the kindest, most compassionate and effective boss to lead. Identifying triggers is very important as are reviewing your strengths and weaknesses. Change does not happen overnight. You have to take baby steps, moving on only after you mastered them. Make a plan and stick to it. Adjust accordingly. Be patient and forgiving. The best way to handle stress, whether with yourself alone or induced by others is a “time out”. Get away from the people, events, activities that are problematic. Keep a journal noting times you are stressing, how you feel and what was going on to lead to it. Date it. Hopefully, as you learn to manage your triggers you will see fewer incidence of it getting out of control. Most of all, if you find yourself unable to control this on your own, there is no shame in attending stress management therapy. Often, the bandaids do not work in the long run. The wounds may go much deeper than you think. Exploring this can teach you how early learned behaviors and inner dialogue can haunt you until addressed.

  • Janus Galante moderator
    3 weeks ago

    I like that SueK,
    to treat ourselves really, as we would treat others. We are so often much harder on ourselves than we are with others, and it is so important to give ourselves room to breath. As you mentioned, giving yourself a time out from the areas you identify as problematic if at all possible, can be a huge help.
    Thank you so much for your thoughts on this!

  • Matt Allen G author
    3 weeks ago

    I think the most important point you brought up is that “change does not happen overnight”. It takes a lot of time to make the right adjustments.

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