All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for January 2004

Coping With Stress

January, 2004
Harvard Medical School

Stress is a part of life. From getting stuck in a traffic jam on our daily commute to being behind on paying bills, too much stress can wreak havoc on our bodies. The uncertainty of having a chronic illness such as multiple sclerosis (MS) creates stress in and of itself and adds to the stress that already exists in our day-to-day activities. That's why small things, such as making dinner or picking up the children from school, can become overwhelming for people who live with this disease.

Medical studies show no clear, specific evidence that stress causes MS. However, as in all neurological disease, stress may exacerbate the symptoms, causing some people to perform poorly while under duress. It also may increase the rate of progression of your disease.

It is pivotal, say experts, to take control of some of the stress in your life. Here are some ways to de-stress yourself:

Adjust your attitude. According to researchers, "hardiness," or the ability to cope well with stress, depends on three things: challenge, control and commitment. Try to interpret stressful situations as challenges, not as threats. Then determine what you can control; sometimes the only thing you will be able to control in a stressful situation is the way you respond, but that's a start. Make a commitment to be good to yourself by eating healthfully, thinking positively and sharing love.

Learn to problem solve. Everyone, especially people with chronic illnesses, can benefit from developing effective coping skills. The key, say experts, is to develop a systematic and rational way of thinking through difficult situations or problems. This can be accomplished by breaking down each problem into smaller pieces to make them seem less overwhelming. Then you can figure out options to better handle the situation.

A key part of learning to problem solve is knowing your limits and learning to be flexible. This approach has worked wonders for Bill Morse Jr. of Houston who was diagnosed with MS 27 years ago. Although not everyone with MS will need to quit their high-stress job, Bill quit his law practice because of its high anxiety and stress levels and now manages a small company. "It's a good idea to approach each problem in the same way. Do what you can do, but 98 percent of the problems can take care of themselves, and the other 2 percent probably weren't important to begin with," he says. "Accept it and float and let time pass."

Communicate. Keeping your troubles inside will only add to the stress of living with a chronic illness. Sharing your innermost thoughts with your spouse, a friend or an MS support group will not only reduce stress but also will help you deal with the ups and downs of the disease.

Exercise. Regular exercise has been proven to relieve stress. It also can help protect the cardiovascular and immune systems from the consequences of stressful events. Whether it's swimming, walking or another form of exercise, you must do the activity on a regular basis.

Marie Sneyers of Clayton, N.J., for example, enjoys doing yoga four times per week. Diagnosed in 1994 with relapsing-remitting MS, the bookkeeper and mother of two believes yoga helps manage her symptoms and her life. "I do yoga to get my energy level up, to clear my mind and to get rid of the stresses I might be experiencing. I like it because it's very relaxing," she explains. "When I come home from work and go to my yoga class, I go in one person and come out another person. I can deal with anything."

Take control of your diet and sleep. Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet and getting a good night's sleep gives you the energy to better cope with stress. If you skip meals or eat a lot of junk food, you'll lack the energy you need to perform. And if you're tired and cranky, you'll be more susceptible to stress-related ailments.

Do something for others. Volunteering at a soup kitchen or for another worthy cause can be a great experience. It also can help you forget about your own problems and increase your self-esteem.

Copyright © 2004, Harvard Medical School