National Stress Awareness Month-Managing stress with multiple sclerosis

April 10, 2014 Michelle T. Toshima

April is National Stress Awareness Month so it seems appropriate to look at the impact of stress on people living with MS and to become more aware of what one can do to better manage one’s reaction to the inevitable stressors in life.
There is a growing body of research that suggests there is an association between stress and an increased risk of MS exacerbations and the development of new lesions in patients with MS.  A group of Dutch researchers followed 73 patients with RRMS and found that those patients who reported a major stressful event were 2.2 times more likely to have an MS exacerbation in the following four weeks.  In 2006, a group of U.S. researchers followed 36 people with MS and found that after experiencing a major life stress, those MS patients were 1.6 times more likely to develop a new lesion in the next eight weeks.2  The same group of researchers reported that the MS patients with good coping strategies could reduce this risk.
The exact mechanism by which stress increases the risk of MS exacerbations and the development of new brain lesions is not entirely clear, but what is known is that stress affects the body’s ability to regulate the inflammatory response, and in patients with MS and other autoimmune disorders, inflammation occurs when the body’s own immune cells attack the nervous system.
Stress happens.  In fact, 77% of Americans say that they regularly experience the physical symptoms caused by stress and 48% say their stress levels have risen over the last five years.  While you may not be able to avoid stress, you can minimize the harmful effects of stress by recognizing when you are under stress and by choosing to respond to the stress in a proactive manner.
Do you know when you are experiencing significant stress?  Do you know your warning signs of stress?  Stress can result in any number of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms.  Common physical symptoms of stress include: headaches, aches/pains, muscle tension, light headedness, rapid breathing and heart rate, sweaty palms, dry mouth, and trouble sleeping.  Common emotional symptoms include: depression, anxiety, crying spells, agitation, apathy, unable to make decisions, emotional numbness, and feelings of helplessness.  Common behavioral symptoms include: impatience, anger outbursts, lack of energy, change in appetite, increase in alcohol or drug use, decreased sex drive, and withdrawal from others.  If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms in response to stress, it’s time to take action.
There are numerous strategies to more effectively manage your response to stress.  Common strategies include: meditation (mindfulness, transcendental meditation, kundalini, qi gong); relaxation (calming breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization); changing catastrophic thought patterns, yoga, prayer, exercise, soothing music, massage, reading a good book, spending time with a loved one, and making time for enjoyable activities.  Do you utilize any of these strategies?  If so, what benefits have you noticed?  If not, what is keeping you from getting started?
Everyone experiences stress differently.  Early recognition of your body’s response to stress will allow you to mobilize coping strategies and minimize the harmful effects of stress on your health. In future blogs, we will explore in more detail the various stress reduction techniques.  

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