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MS and Toxic Positivity

By Matt Cavallo

Think back to the day you were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. You were probably recovering from your first diagnosed MS symptoms. You might have been learning to walk or see again. You might also have had serious concerns about your health, future, and mortality. Quite possibly someone close to you said something along the lines of, “look on the bright side, at least it’s not …” or “you know that everything happens for a reason.” These are both examples of toxic positivity.

“Toxic positivity is the act of avoiding, suppressing, or rejecting negative emotions or experiences. This may take the form of denying your own emotions or someone else denying your emotions, insisting on positive thinking instead” according to Psychology Today. In the case of being diagnosed with a chronic, incurable disease such as MS, a toxic positivity outlook would be that despite the diagnosis you should always remain in a positive mindset. 

I am someone who believes that everyone should have a positive mindset. I also believe some things are outside of our control, and we should try to do the best we can with the hand we are dealt. Sometimes that thinking, however, can be to our detriment. 

When diagnosed with a chronic illness, most people go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Toxic positivity can lead to a person being stuck in the denial stage and never truly accept their diagnosis. This may lead to behaviors such as avoiding the doctor and neurologist visits, not taking MS treatments, and avoiding MS-related testing. 

Toxic positivity can be used as a coping mechanism by either you or another person in your life that is having trouble accepting your illness. For example, when I was first diagnosed with MS, I lost my ability to walk. Through physical therapy and IV steroids, I was slowly learning how to walk again. At the time, I lost the function of everything from my waist down. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to be a dad and that my sex life was over. I had only been married for three years prior this happening, so I was tremendously worried that my diagnosis would prevent my wife and I from living out our hopes and dreams that we had for our marriage. While I was voicing these concerns, my father-in-law stopped me and said, “It’s not like you were hit by a bus.” 

He thought he was being helpful. The intent of his words was for me to be more positive. However, I felt like I was being shamed. I felt like he was minimizing my feelings and essentially telling me to get over it when I was still processing what was happening to me. It left me feeling guilty for feeling depressed about my diagnosis and also made me feel like I had to hide how I was feeling from him. I still have those feelings towards him to this day. Keep in mind that I was diagnosed almost 20 years ago.

Here are some tips to help manage toxic positivity:
  • Feel all the feels. Feeling negative or depressed about MS is perfectly normal and natural. You should allow yourself to feel those emotions, especially if it helps you get to acceptance. Note – if you feel stuck in a negative mindset or depression and you need help, please reach out to a mental health professional.
  • Communicate that you are not feeling okay. Don’t be afraid to let people know that while you appreciate their positivity, you are not in a positive space. 
  • If you cannot communicate your feelings verbally, put them on paper. Sometimes people need to read a message in order to receive it, especially if they are stuck in a toxic positivity way of thinking.
  • Don’t be afraid to push back. No one can tell you how to feel or how to grieve. We all do it differently, so don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself.