Emotional Changes

When thinking about multiple sclerosis (MS), we often think of the physical symptoms like pain, numbness, or trouble with walking. However, MS can also take a toll on a person’s mental and emotional health.1

Depending on the situation, these issues can be just as challenging to deal with as the physical ones, if not more. Each person’s response to MS will be different. There is no right or wrong way to navigate life with a chronic condition and the emotions that come with it.

Understanding emotional changes

The world is full of stress and uncertainty. It is normal for people to feel a wide range of emotions in a short period of time. We regularly feel sadness, happiness, stress, and worry. Most of these are manageable. They can be handled with good self-care, self-awareness, and support.1,2

However, in some cases, these feelings can become overwhelming or impact a person’s ability to live their daily life. Anxiety, depression, distress, or other mental health conditions can develop. While these emotions are hard to deal with, they are common. About 1 in 6 adults in the United States will experience depression, and nearly 1 in 5 will have some form of an anxiety disorder. It is also possible for both of these to occur together.3

Whether emotional changes are small or large, they still take a toll on daily life. Finding ways to navigate these feelings is a lifelong process. Recognizing when you can handle something on your own versus with the help of someone else is key to overall well-being.2

Emotional changes seen in MS

Emotional changes can come at any time when living with MS. Receiving a diagnosis can be overwhelming. Being unable to participate in activities you used to enjoy can be upsetting. Fear of the future is always common, no matter how long you have been living with MS.1,2,4-6

Symptoms of MS, like pain or problems thinking, can also lead to frustration and sadness. In addition, some drugs used to treat MS or other issues may have side effects that impact mental health. Damage to nerves in the brain can also directly cause changes in emotions or thought processes.1,2,4-6

As many as 2 out of every 3 adults with MS will experience emotional changes. Sometimes, these may be minor and self-manageable. Other times, professional support or treatment may be helpful.4

There are several common emotional challenges faced by those with MS.1,2,5

Grief

It is normal to grieve over lost abilities or activities as a result of MS. It is also normal to experience grief when receiving a diagnosis. This grief can come along with feelings of low self-worth or self-confidence, especially when symptoms worsen. Grief tends to come and go in waves. It often improves over time on its own.1,2,5

Moodiness, mood changes, or irritability

Some of these may be related to MS symptoms or other factors, such as social support, paying for treatment, or finding the right healthcare team. Feeling up and down at times is normal. However, mood swings or overwhelming feelings that impact your ability to live your daily life may need attention and expert support.1,2,5

Stress

Stress can come from a variety of things. For example, financial challenges related to life with a chronic condition and understanding the healthcare system can lead to stress. Stress may increase with MS flares, too. Chronic stress can take a toll on overall health and well-being.1,2,5

Anxiety and depression

Mood changes, stress, and grief can become hard to manage. When this happens, anxiety or depression may develop. It is also possible for anxiety or depression to develop on their own without an obvious underlying cause. These are both medical conditions that have treatment options available.1,2,5

Pseudobulbar affect (PBA)

About 10 percent of people with MS will develop PBA. People with PBA have uncontrollable episodes of laughing or crying or sudden mood changes without an obvious trigger. This is thought to be due to MS-related changes in the brain.1,2,5

Managing emotional changes

The best way to manage emotional issues depends on the situation and underlying cause. Some emotional changes, like anxiety or depression, may require professional support. This may include talk therapy or drugs like antidepressants.2

Times of high stress may benefit from relaxation techniques like meditation. Treatment plans may need to be changed if drug side effects are causing mood issues.2

While everyone’s situation is different, there are common options for managing all kinds of emotional changes. These include:2

  • Being physically active, if possible
  • Eating a well-balanced diet and drinking plenty of water
  • Practicing meditation, mindfulness, yoga, journaling, or other stress-relieving behaviors
  • Taking time to praise yourself and your efforts
  • Connecting with family and friends
  • Setting realistic and achievable goals
  • Planning fun activities in the future to look forward to

Although many of these options can be helpful, emotions can still be overwhelming. If you feel like you might harm yourself or someone else, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can help. They can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) any time.7

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Casey Hribar | Last reviewed: March 2022.