Stress is a common and unavoidable part of life. You might experience stress when there is an imbalance between the demands made of you and your ability to meet those demands. This could mean deadlines at work, family difficulties, or having to adapt to new life circumstances.
Stress is not always bad; having no stress would mean no variety in life, no change and no opportunity to strive or achieve things. However, long-term or excessive stress can affect your health and may make the symptoms of MS seem worse.
Living with MS can undeniably be stressful. Depression, anxiety, pain and fatigue are common with MS. These and many other symptoms can be difficult to treat or come to terms with. Learning to manage your stress in such a way that it does not make life with MS worse is an important part of taking control of your condition.
How can I tell if I have stress?
Stress causes changes in your blood pressure, heart rate and metabolism. In the short-term, these responses can improve your 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.
Can stress cause MS?
There is mixed evidence for a link between a period of stress and subsequently developing MS. Some studies do see an effect whilst others don't. For example, no link was found between experiencing a stressful life event such as divorce or bereavement of a child or spouse and later developing MS.
Anecdotal reports and some research does suggest that a prolonged period of stress will increase the risk of having a relapse, in people who already have an MS diagnosis. However, not all studies have found this result. Some studies have shown that stress management programmes can slow down new areas of MS damage (lesions) shown by MRI scans. This effect may only be temporary.
Personality type appears to be more relevant than the amount or type of stress in determining the effect it has on your health. This would explain the mixed results above. Basically, are you the kind of person who reacts well to stress? Some people use stress to push themselves to achieve more, some retreat from challenge and find stress hard to cope with.
The good news is that anyone can learn new techniques to cope better with stress, and develop healthier habits of thinking. You could use our tips below. However, even the healthiest approach to stress can falter in the face of long-term illness or prolonged difficulties. Seek help and enlist the support of others if you need to.
How can I deal with 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. It might not be 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.
There are three stages in stress management:
Recognise the effect stress is having on your health.
Identify what is causing you stress.
Take action to remove or reduce the cause of stress.
Ideas to help you deal with stress:
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.
Recognise your own signs of stress, and take charge of your own emotions, thoughts and actions.
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.
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Last updated: July 2018
Last reviewed: July 2018
This page will be reviewed within three years