Everyone can relate to feeling stressed from time to time. It’s part of being a human.
Stress is a normal response when there’s a perceived threat to survival or your way of life. Though your body’s natural response to stress — wanting to run away from it or fight it — isn’t usually an option.
Stress isn’t always negative. Major life events like moving, starting a new job, or having a baby can cause stress too.
When stress is ongoing, it can start to affect your well-being. Stress can cause a variety of symptoms, including headaches, tension, sleep difficulty, and mood changes. Long-term stress can lead to depression and cause physical symptoms.
It’s impossible to avoid stress altogether, but you can find ways to better respond to stress. When you live with multiple sclerosis (MS), finding ways to manage your stress is an important part of managing your condition.
Does stress affect MS?
MS is an autoimmune disease. The immune system is designed to attack harmful invaders like viruses or bacteria. In MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks myelin, the protective coating on the nerves. This results in damage to the myelin.
There may be a link between stress and autoimmune diseases like MS. Researchers have found that people who have been diagnosed with stress-related conditions are more likelyTrusted Source to develop an autoimmune disease. However, more research is needed to understand this connection.
Science hasn’t been able to draw a conclusive link between stress and MS flares. Stress can cause a variety of emotional and physical symptoms that can affect how you feel. If you’re already dealing with symptoms of MS or its treatments, the extra toll of stress can make you feel worse.
Does stress cause MS lesions?
MS lesions are areas of damage in the nervous system. They can be seen using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). New lesions look different than older ones. Researchers have been studying how different factors may influence the formation of new lesions.
One studyTrusted Source explored the effects of both positive and negative stressful events. Negative stress was defined as a threat to the person or their family. The study found that periods of negative stress resulted in more brain lesions. Positive stress events did not.
Another study found that stress management counseling reducedTrusted Source the number of new MS brain lesions. However, the effects did not last. There was no significant difference in lesions at the 24 week follow-up.
How can I manage stress with multiple sclerosis?
Stressful events and experiences are a part of life and it’s impossible to completely avoid them. It’s not about eliminating stress, but about finding ways to cope.
Here are some stress management strategies to try:
- Mindfulness. Mindfulness means focusing on the present moment instead of getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future. To start, you can take a few moments to sit quietly and focus on your breath. Try to become more aware of your environment: the scent, sight, sound, and feel of your surroundings.
- Deep breathing. Deep breathing can help you manage some of the physical effects of stress. When you’re focused on your breath, there’s no room for other thoughts. To do this, try breathing in slowly through your nose. Exhale even more slowly through pursed lips.
- Social connection. Maintaining strong social relationships is good for your healthTrusted Source. Feeling well-supported can improve your physical and emotional well-being. Sharing your experiences can help you feel less alone and improve your ability to cope. Make time to connect with friends and family or find ways to get involved in your community.
- Counseling. A therapist is specially trained to provide mental health support. They can help you cope with difficult situations that are contributing to stress. You can search for a therapist who also has experience working with people who have chronic conditions like MS.
What are other MS triggers?
A flare is when MS symptoms get worse or new symptoms develop that last at least 24 to 48 hours. The following triggers have been associated with MS flares:
- Overheating. Anything that causes your body temperature to rise can trigger a flare. Do your best to avoid spending too much time in the direct sun. Avoid saunas or hot tubs.
- Illness or infection. Getting sick can trigger MS symptoms. Wash your hands often, practice safe food handling, and get your annual flu shot to help you stay healthy and keep flares at bay.
- Changes in medication. An MS flare is more likely to occur when there’s a change in the type or dose of your medication. Make sure you understand exactly how to take your medication. Ask your doctor if you’re unsure about any changes to your treatment plan.
- Smoking. Smoking is associated with faster progressionTrusted Source of MS. If you smoke, it’s never too late to cut down or quit. Ask your doctor for support if you’re ready to quit.
Being aware of your MS triggers can help you take steps to prevent them. But it’s important to remember that not all flares are preventable, and they’re not your fault.
It’s unclear if there is a direct link between stress and MS flares. Stress can cause a variety of physical and emotional changes that can affect how you feel. You can’t get through life without any stress, but there are ways to better manage stress and your MS.
Medically reviewed by Seunggu Han, M.D. —
Written by Carly Werner on February 8, 2021