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Lower Stress by Strengthening Your Support Network

By Gay Falkowski

Deep breathing, mindful meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga – these health and wellness practices have become popular stress-busters for people with MS. But did you know receiving good emotional support also helps reduce stress? The American Psychological Association reports “having strong social support can actually make you more able to cope with problems on your own, by improving your self-esteem and sense of autonomy.”
The good news is you don’t need a huge network of friends and family to benefit from social support, according to the APA. Just a handful of people can be enough. If you have trouble making social connections, here are seven things you can do to begin strengthening your support network:
  1. Cast a wide net. It’s not always easy to find one person to confide in about everything. Different kinds of relationships can provide different kinds of support. When the issue is MS, you’ll likely want to share your problems with someone else that has MS. But if the problem is about your kids or work, you may want to share it with another neighborhood parent or a coworker.
  2. Be proactive. If you’ve shared your diagnosis with friends, some of them may not be calling or coming around as often. Sometimes they just don’t know what to say, or assume you’re not up for company. Reach out to say hello to them. You could also turn the table and ask if there’s anything they need. If you’re there for others, they’ll be more likely to be there for you. When it comes to longevity, research suggests that providing social support to friends and family may be even more important than receiving it.
  3. Take advantage of technology. Face-to-face interactions are most beneficial, but not always possible. Luckily, technology makes it easier than ever before to stay connected with loved ones far away. Write an email, send a text message, or make a date for a video chat.
  4. Follow your interests. You’re more likely to connect with people who like the things you like. Make a list of your favorite interests and activities. Then look for a club, sign up for a class, or take on a volunteer position that will allow you to meet others who share your interests. Getting to know others takes time, so don’t worry if you don’t ‘click’ with someone right away. Try to enjoy the experience as you go.
  5. Seek out peer support. When you’re dealing with a specific stressful situation – such as living with MS – you may not find the support you need from your current network. Consider joining a local MS support group to meet others who are dealing with similar challenges. If there are no groups in your area, or you can’t make it out, online social media groups are a great way to meet others with MS. For your best chance at finding positive interaction, join groups with participation guidelines, such as the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation Facebook support group.
  6. Improve your social skills. One of the best ways to get conversations started is to ask simple questions about the other person: Where are you from? What do like to do for fun? What’s your favorite travel destination? If you’re talking with another person with MS, you’ll have lots of common ground to explore, but keep in mind everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to sharing their journey.
  7. Ask for help. If you lack a strong support network and aren’t sure where to start, consider reaching out to the following resources:
  • MS centers and nonprofit organizations,
  • places of worship,
  • senior and community centers,
  • local libraries,
  • refugee and immigrant groups,
  • neighborhood health clinics, and
  • local branches of national organizations such as the YMCA/YWCA.
They may be able to help you identify services, support groups and other programs in your community.
Additionally, psychologists can help you develop strategies to manage stress and improve your social skills. Use the APA’s Psychologist Locator Service at http://locator.apa.org to find a psychologist in your area, ideally one who is familiar with MS and the challenges of living with a chronic illness. You can also visit www.mentalhealth.gov, a website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that offers resources in English and Spanish.