Inside The Connection Between Stress And MS

A 2013 review in Autoimmunity Reviews defines multiple sclerosis (MS) as an autoimmune disease characterized by inflammation of the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord.

Coping with MS can be physically taxing due to the limitations those living with it face. But the National Multiple Sclerosis Society acknowledges that MS can also add mental and emotional pressures on top of the physical limitations. 

The progression and expression of MS are unpredictable, and dealing with uncertainty can be stressful. MS can affect your ability to work, leading to financial worries and the need to adjust to changing abilities. The invisibility of some MS symptoms can also cause people to feel misunderstood by others, who often don't recognize the cognitive impairment or emotional fluctuations associated with MS. Additionally, emerging symptoms, constant medical appointments, the need to adjust to changes in treatments, and concerns with health insurance can feel overwhelming. The U.S. News & World Report further notes that parents with MS may need to take care of their children, even though they feel exhausted, adding multiple levels of stress to everyday life.

But there's a catch-22. A 2011 study in Neurology states that many studies have shown that stressful life events can significantly increase the chance that MS symptoms could worsen. Stress can lower immunity and increase brain inflammation, creating a domino effect. Further, a 2020 study in the Internal Journal of Molecular Sciences says neuroinflammatory conditions can trigger anxiety and increase the risk of developing anxiety disorders.

Managing stress with MS

Managing the connection between stress and MS needn't be a hopeless cause, however. The MS Society offers practical solutions for dealing with stress and anxiety. Learning to accept what you can and cannot control can help you let go of what you don't have power over so you have more energy to deal with what you can control. Setting realistic goals and planning ahead can help ensure you meet your goals when possible and give you extra breathing room should something change. It may help to write in a journal when you feel stressed so you can look back and identify situations that trigger stress and avoid them in the future. 

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society says positive reinforcement can also help reduce the stress of living with MS. Instead of telling yourself that you're a failure when you couldn't do something like you wanted, remind yourself that you did a pretty good job or that you are good at many other things. With a few minor adjustments, you can reduce the effects of stress on MS and vice versa.