Stress: Its Effects and What You Can Do About It
Stress is a funny thing. It can be a good thing for us, but it can also be a terrible. Stress can manifest itself in numerous ways within our bodies, from pain, to sleeplessness, to forgetfulness, to headaches, and many many others. But how does stress affect individuals who have Multiple Sclerosis?
Types of Stress
Physical stress is the workout you completed earlier, or your blood pressure response when you got cut off coming home from work, or for us MSers, the physiological changes that can occur with MS (spasticity, weakness, etc.). These types of changes can increase the demand we put on our bodies and possibly set us up for injury if we aren’t being aware and careful. Being consistent with staying active is one way to combat these issues, possibly working with a trainer or physical therapist if needed. Consistently being active helps our muscles stay in shape and conditioned. Keeping up physical strength is always beneficial as well, regardless of your diagnosis.
Emotional stress can be anything that is stressful for you. Having a fight with a loved one, thinking about health issues or getting a new Chronic Illness diagnosis. Emotional stress can also quickly turn into chronic stress if we’re not careful. Chronic stress is when we don’t really “turn off” our feelings of stress, or flight or fight. The flight or fight response involves our sympathetic nervous system. This is an automatic system that helps us to defend against acute stressors, like a bear attack for example. When this fight or flight system is activated, it sets off a cascade of hormones in our bodies that helps us prepare for one such bear. However, when we’re in chronic stress mode, and we’re experiencing stressor after stressor, these hormones still come cascading throughout our bodies. This leads to these hormones being released constantly, which can ultimately damage our nervous system and create a multitude of health problems.
Stress and MS
Both physical and emotional stress can create a variety of symptoms. Since we have MS, we have to be extra careful when it comes to dealing with stress. It seems to be a hotly debated topic, but in the research I’ve read when a ‘stressful life event’ occurs (again, anything that is stressful for you), a relapse can often follow. Now, that’s not to say that it will DEFINITELY happen, but it is something to watch out for, and all the more reason to find ways to manage stress on a daily basis. So when that ‘stressful life event’ does occur, you’re that much more prepared to jump into action and know what works best for you in managing your stress.
So what are some things that actually work?
- Obviously I’ll be adding exercise to the list 😉 Engaging in exercise can increase your endorphin’s, which are the feel good hormones. Endorphin’s increase your mood and your natural ability to de-stress. Exercise also will strengthen your muscles and create physical stabilization. Exercise is a one two punch for stress management! However, exercise is also a form of stress. So this is a fine line. If you’re super stressed would I recommend a super hard workout? Probably not. But I would recommend a restorative workout that you’ve already figured out works for you.
- Yes, I believe deep breathing works. It’s cliche, but it’s scientifically proven, at least the way I do it and teach it. Hold your breath for 4 counts, breathe in for four counts, hold it again for four counts, then exhale for four counts. This is called ‘square breathing’ (just one name for it) and it activates our parasympathetic nervous system, so our bodies can chill out.
- Something else that I have been playing around with (and have been loving, btw) has been meditation. I’ve used several apps, (Headspace and Insight Timer are my favorites) and they’ve been great. I like guided meditation, because it’s too hard for me right now to just sit. I need something to focus on besides the noise in my head.
- Getting enough sleep can be on any list to improve any symptom, in my opinion. But for stress management in people with MS, its extra important. Stress can interfere with getting a good nights sleep, and not having enough sleep can increase fatigue and decrease ability to manage stress and difficult situations. Nasty catch-22 right? During times of increased stress, make sleep a priority, even if that means saying “no” to some things you would normally say “yes” to.
- Consider alternative therapies or getting professional help. Finding alternative outlets for your stress, including arts, music, tai chi, massage or therapy can be very useful. Talking with a professional about specific techniques, then how to implement them can also be helpful. Mindfulness is another “trending” topic as of late. According to research published in 2014, individuals with MS who engaged in mindfulness stated they had a better quality of life, reduced fatigue and improved mental health. Pretty good reasons to try it out I’d say!
There are many things that can be considered stress-reducing. As long as it brings you comfort and enjoyment, go for it. I like to tell people to make these activities a daily habit, so when you really need them, you already know what works, what doesn’t and how you go about doing them. Because really, when you’re freaking out, do you really want to be learning something new on top of it all? Probably not. Practice makes Perfect!
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