Stress is a common and unavoidable part of life. Long-term or excessive stress can affect health and may make the symptoms of MS seem worse.
It is not possible to remove all of the sources of stress, but there are ways to control stress by learning to change how you react to stressful events.
What is stress?
Stress is a normal and unavoidable part of life. Stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the demands made and the ability to meet those demands. This could be deadlines at work, difficulties within the family or when people are forced to adapt to new life circumstances. The greater the amount of change required, the greater the potential for stress.
Can stress cause MS?
Research into whether a period of stress may precede a diagnosis of MS is mixed - some studies do see an effect whilst others don't. Research does suggest that a prolonged period of stress will increase the risk of having a relapse, though not all studies of this topic have found this result.
Some studies have shown that stress management programmes may reduce the build up of new areas of MS damage (lesions) that are shown by MRI scans. This effect may only be temporary.
What are the symptoms of stress?
Stress causes changes in blood pressure, heart rate and metabolism. In the short-term, these responses can improve physical and mental performance to cope with immediate crises - the 'fight or flight' response. However, left unchecked, excessive stress can have negative effects on physical and emotional health, including a direct effect on levels of fatigue.
Everybody reacts differently to stress, but there are common symptoms
Physical - increased levels of sweating, muscle tightness, regular headaches, constipation or diarrhoea.
Emotional - irritability, reduced concentration, feeling overwhelmed, problems making decisions, decreased confidence, low mood.
Behavioural - difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, loss of libido, increased drinking or smoking and reduced willingness to socialise.
What can I do if I have stress?
Nobody can say what will be stressful for another person. Every situation or life event has the potential to be stressful and the ways in which people deal with stress are very individual.
There are three stages in stress management.
It is not possible to remove all of the sources of stress, but it may be possible to manage your own stress by changing the situation in order to limit the stressful elements.
Recognising the effect stress is having on health.
Identifying what is causing stress.
Taking action to remove or reduce the cause of stress.
Recognise your own signs of stress, take charge of own emotions, thoughts and actions.
Keep things in perspective. Focussing on only the bad things that might happen will prevent you from enjoying the good things that are happening just now.
Keep a positive attitude. Try changing your thinking from "There's no help anyone can give me" to "What can I do improve my situation".
Be kind to yourself.
Seek support from other people - discussing sources of worry with others rather than keeping them to yourself can help. Even if they can't directly change the source of stress, another person's point of view can put things in a different light.
Plan ahead - prioritising activities can create more time for essential tasks and also identify potential areas of stress in advance.
Stay active and take time out for enjoyable activities - taking a step back from stressful events can change the perspective on problems and relieve the build up of stress to some degree. Physical activity is one of the most effective stress remedies, improving mood and self esteem. It can also act as a safe way to let off steam, or work off anger or frustration which doesn't involve taking things out on other people - a route more likely to increase stress.
- Neuroepidemiology 2011;36(2):109-120. Full article (pdf 232kb) Stress as a risk factor for multiple sclerosis onset or relapse: a systematic review.
- Neurology 2011;76(22):1866-1871. Full article Stress and the risk of multiple sclerosis.
- Materia Socio-Medica 2012; 24(3):142-147. Full article Stress as a provoking factor for the first and repeated multiple sclerosis seizures.
- Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology 2012;27(4):406-416. Summary Stress management in multiple sclerosis: a randomized controlled trial.
- Current Neurology And Neuroscience Reports 2013;13(11):398. Summary Stress in multiple sclerosis: a review of new developments and future directions.
- Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 2014;85(10):1103-1108. Summary Major stressful life events in adulthood and risk of multiple sclerosis.
- [06 January 2014 accessed 11 September 2015] Read on the NHS Choices website Ten stress busters.
Last updated: December 2017
Last reviewed: September 2015
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