Studies show that experiencing stress can affect MS relapses for those with RRMS and worsen MS symptoms. Long-term, continuous stress keeps the immune system in a hyper-alert state, it is very pro-inflammatory and creates wear and tear in the body, otherwise known as allostatic load. There is a good evidence base to back this up, click here to read studies which share more detailed information.
Although it's simply not possible to avoid stressful life events, there are ways that you can learn to deal with stress so that you prevent MS relapses. Scientists have discovered that stress management techniques can significantly reduce lesions and MS relapses.
MS symptoms can also be stressful in themselves, and symptoms can naturally feel worse if you are feeling stressed and anxious. Managing your overall stress level and finding new ways to cope can help you in the long term.
Meditation - Step 4 of the OMS program
One effective way to manage stress effectively is meditation. Strong scientific evidence shows that meditation affects areas in the brain that can help you to respond to stress more effectively. Watch this short video to find out more.
There are many different ways to meditate. OMS focuses mainly on mindfulness meditation, as a large and increasing body of evidence supports this approach. However, practicing any kind of meditation is likely to be beneficial and is encouraged. Take a look at the range of guided meditations OMS offer for free.
We have also created a monthly meditation guide which you can follow to help you stay on track.
Other elements of the OMS recovery program which can help
There are also other steps of the program which can help manage stress more effectively.
- Exercise - exercise can directly reduce stress by increasing your endorphins, but it also improves your overall sense of wellbeing, especially if you are enjoying the physical activity and socialising with friends at the same time (when restrictions allow).
- Diet - chronic stress releases cortisol and studies have shown this increases the desire for calorie-laden, sweet, fatty, processed foods. A bad diet can lead to inflammation of the gut which leads to an MS relapse. So what's the best diet to help reduce stress and improve MS symptoms? We have made it easy with an OMS diet which includes reducing saturated fats, increasing omega-3 intake and a wide range of colourful fruit and vegetables. Take a look at all our delicious recipes for inspiration and read about OMSers diet/stress experiences.
Tips and suggestions from the OMS community
Stress begins in the mind, but lives in the body. The personal impact of your stressors depends more on your perception and how you interpret them than the actual stressors themselves. On whether you react, which is likely to trigger the physiological ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction, or whether you respond and remain calm and stay being ‘present’.
Managing stress positively is all about ‘managing the mind’. It is the very primitive part of our brain that triggers off our fight, light or freeze reaction and can’t always distinguish between real or imagined stressful events. The whole point of the flight, fight or freeze system is to get us ready to do something and is concerned with instinctive reactions involving strong emotions. Strong emotions focus and lock our attention resulting in our making simplified ‘black-or-white’ choices.
However, most of the stressors we face today are not of the ‘life-or-death’ variety. Once the fight, flight or freeze system kicks in it denies us full access to our rational thinking part of the brain. To regain access to our rational brain, we need to learn how to calm ourselves down and relax whenever we start feeling overwhelmed with stress.
Many people find the easiest way to relax is to concentrate on their own breathing and use a simple technique called the 7/11 method – to breathe in to the count of 7, then breathe out gently and to the count of 11 (this is important because the out breathe stimulates the body’s natural relaxation response). Keep repeating this breathing pattern while noticing the calming changes that start to happen throughout your body. As our body relaxes, so does our mind.
This is the first step in learning how to stay calm and build emotional resilience as well as ‘managing our mind’. It also regains us access to our rational brain once more and gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves such questions as ‘how real is this stress I am starting to get anxious about?’, ‘what are the chances it will really happen?’, ‘how do I know that this will be the outcome?’.
This is the key to starting to learn how to avoid needless stress. However it is not always easy to make the important changes I am suggesting here on your own; know your limits. This is when a professional counsellor is invaluable. The creative and perceptive input of an effective counsellor will pick up on the information that is relevant for helping you to help yourself gain mastery over managing your stress positively.
If you are serious in wanting to avoid the needless stressors in your life, give yourself the gift of self-compassion, and make a commitment to seek the help of a professional counsellor on this National Stress Awareness Day.
Juggling several different commitments including family, children, work and study coupled with the added burden of Covid related struggles, being 9 months post part partum AND a diagnosis of MS, I am aware that I am vulnerable to relapse. With the knowledge that stress is a trigger for me, like many, I particularly anxious of late and has encouraged me to up my game when it comes to stress management.
Historically my response to stress has been rather unsightly and typically displayed in the format of something that could be likened to that of a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum; something that I am far from unfamiliar with, with a tantrum-throwing 2-year-old daughter myself. She might be excused because you might expect a 2-year-old to shout and scream and kick her feet on the floor if she doesn’t get her own way, but not a 36-year-old woman!
In order to avoid the consequences of stress and sending myself into yet another relapse I’ve tried and tested different ways to manage my stress over the years until I’ve finally arrived at a routine that seems to work for me.
The key change I’ve made and approach I’ve taken is to be proactive in addressing stress. Former attempts have relied almost entirely on a reactive response that have at best only yielded partial success.
There are 2 key components to my proactive approach; trigger recognition and maintenance.
Too much workload can contribute to my levels of stress and is responsible to some extent, but I’ve come to realise that the even bigger stress trigger for me is sensory overload; noise in particular. Loud noises, too many voices and too much background noise flips the stress switch to the on position. Now I have this vital gem of information I can recognise when the stress switch is about to flip ahead of time before I have that temper-tantrum. When I feel this moment brewing, I walk away from the immediate environment (without my phone or other distracters) to a quieter space, sit down (or even lie down) and take a few deep breaths. Since I haven’t yet reached the moment of no return this only literally requires nothing more than 5 minutes before returning back. This helps to return the physiological response by lowering heart, breathing and respiration rates before they reaches levels that can impact on the psychological response also.
I’ve also found that it helps to let people around you know that this is a trigger for you so that they can help too by reducing the noise.
Beyond doing this when I notice my trigger being activated, I’ve also found that its helpful to have these short breaks at various points during the days, just for 2 or 3 minutes at a time even if I am not feeling at all stressed.
Essentially, in my experience, the key to stress management is to take a proactive approach by becoming familiar with your stress triggers and when you have identified them and they occur, separating yourself from the environment in the moment for a short while to recalibrate before returning.
Managing stress is a lot of hard work but one of the most important skills to master if you want to navigate today's fast-paced society with peace of mind and some serenity. It is hard managing it as a healthy person let alone as someone who has to deal with chronic health conditions. So managing stress for my husband who lives with MS, I as his partner and my family comes down to a few practices we learned and applied to our daily routine: meditating, exercising, and being creative. We found out that these three tools are the most effective for keeping our stress levels down and the ones that keep our family open for communicating freely about the MS and how to live patiently with it as a family unit.
But arriving at that point took some struggle, courage, and dedication. I would love to say that meditation came into our lives naturally, as a preventive self-care tool but in reality, we started meditating when our lives were messy and in need of a lot of tender loving care. It was 2014 and my husband was just diagnosed with PPMS and I had to deal with the loss of both my father and my brother in two years. So at a certain point, everyday life became hard, and our minds exploded. I experienced several panic attacks, a million different thoughts and feelings speeding through my head like the fastest Japanese train. How will I manage to take care of a disabled person, what about my life and my desires – do they matter anymore? How to explain to our daughter what is happening to her dad?
While we searched for meaningful resources to deal with MS we started following George Jelinek's 7-step program and meditation was of course one of its important pillars. I jumped on board with it immediately and did the online course Mindfulness for a Peak Performance from Monash University, and started practicing it quite regularly. My husband struggled with its concept for a while but eventually joined me and took a slightly different approach. As he is a very authentic personality his way of successfully managing stress came down to a combination of yoga breathing exercises with performing karate kata's in slow-motion, similar to tai chi exercises.
The interesting part and the one we did not see it coming was that all these practices also opened the doors to be more creative and developing new hobbies that fill your heart with pleasure and calm. We learned to accept our sometimes heavy thoughts, not fighting them anymore but gently letting them go like the clouds that gather and then vanish again. Famous Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says it beautifully: 'You are the sky, everything else is just the weather.'
So ultimately successfully managing stress helps me be a better partner to someone who has to live with MS and it also helps me coping easier with life's challenges that such a chronic condition brings. It also enriches our overall family communication. We have a teenage daughter and it is much easier to explain difficulties her dad and I experience with a calmer mind and she can freely and openly express her feelings and possible frustrations that her dad's condition might bring to her. So start exploring ways and practices to help you manage stress and do it with your authentic twist.
Like many people, my MS flared following a period of prolonged stress. And though debate continues as to whether stress causes MS, there is no doubt at all that it worsens it.
Neurologist Professor Giovannoni’s study revealed that 83% of participants experienced a worsening of their symptoms after a stressful period. This is because stress triggers an inflammatory response and dysregulates our immune system. Continued stress isn’t good for anyone, but for those with MS, it literally makes us ill.
We can’t avoid stress, but we can learn strategies to help us minimise its impact.
Our first defence is simply to breathe deeply and regularly. In this way, we trick the brain into thinking all is well and our body returns to equilibrium. Alternately, try humming. It naturally slows breathing and occupies the mind in a positive way.
Meditation and mindfulness practice are all about reminding us to stay in the present. We can affect neither the future nor the past, but we can control how we behave now. By keeping up a regular practice in mindfulness, we equip ourselves to better cope with all life’s craziness.
The media, in all its forms, is fuelled by conflict, tension and outrage. It stimulates extreme emotions which can, sometimes, become addictive. Exciting though it may be, it does nothing for our well-being. Limiting our exposure is therefore wise, particularly at the beginning and end of the day. If we use this time instead for quiet reflection, our sleep and our day will pass much more serenely.
This Too Shall Pass
Even the most distressing and stressful circumstances have an end. Remembering this helps us maintain balance amid the whirlwind. Look after yourself and work on strategies to keep stress under control. Your body will thank you for it.
If you have any tips or advice you would like to share with the community, please leave them in the comments below.