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Emotions and MS: 5 Ways to Develop Resilience

By Gay Falkowski

Just as multiple sclerosis affects the physical health of each person in different ways, it also affects the emotional health of each person in different ways. Sadness, fear, happiness, anger, anxiety, contentment – all of these and more are feelings you may experience while living with MS. It is important to realize emotions are neither “right” nor “wrong,” and there is no “right” way to feel while coping with all the uncertainty – and the changes – that follow an MS diagnosis.

In The MS Workbook: Living Fully with MS (Robert T. Fraser, Ph.D., George H. Kraft, M.D., MS, Dawn Ehde, Ph.D., and Kurt Johnson, Ph.D., 2006), Ehde and Johnson describe what researchers have learned about emotions and MS as well as how to develop useful coping skills. In general:
  • Your emotions may change over time
  • Not everyone with MS will have the same set of emotions
  • Negative emotions are not necessarily bad or destructive
  • Having MS doesn’t sentence you to a life of unhappiness
  • People don’t necessarily experience emotions in stages
  • Many people with MS live happy, satisfying lives without experiencing significant depression or anxiety
  • You may not be aware of “how extreme” an emotional reaction may appear to others
  • Other people may project their emotional responses to MS on you

Emotions come and go, but some negative emotions can linger and grow into more serious conditions, such as depression (common in persons with MS). But while depression is a serious condition that should be diagnosed and treated by healthcare professionals, many emotions can be managed by learning to modify your behavior and the way you think about certain situations.

“Many people find that they are able to meet the challenges of living with MS successfully, and to live happy, satisfying lives. People who ‘bounce back’ from difficulties are sometimes described as having ‘resilience’. When you are resilient, you experience such feelings but you don’t let those feelings define who you are or how you respond to challenges,” Edhe and Johnson write.

They offer the following strategies to help increase or maintain resilience and help decrease stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions.

1. Nurture positive emotions. Positive emotions, such as joy and happiness, are important to good health. Try to have positive emotions each day. Write down some things you can do to make this happen – things you know make you happy (cuddling with your cat) or things you would like to try (maybe a new hobby). This can be as simple as listening to your favorite music in the car, or involve other people, such as talking to a friend, volunteering, or spending more time with a family member whose company you enjoy.

2. Get active physically and socially. One of the best ways for you to improve or maintain your physical and emotional health is to exercise. Make being active a part of your daily routine. Your doctor and physical therapist can determine your limits and which exercises might be best for you. You will likely begin with just a few minutes a day, increasing gradually, from week-to-week or month-to-month. You will build tolerance over time. Exercising with a group can also provide a social, “mood-elevating” experience.

3. Practice relaxation skills. There are many techniques you can learn to promote feelings of wellbeing, relaxation, and calmness. A physical state of deep comfort and rest that has a number of positive physiological changes associated with it, including decreased blood pressure and muscle tension. Some of these strategies involve deep breathing others involve imagining peaceful images or scenery. If you are interested in learning specific relaxation techniques, there are books and CDs on the topic available to borrow at no cost from the MSF Lending Library. You may also be able to find these at your local library.

4. Think differently about challenges. Negative or alarming thoughts, while normal, can make you feel bad if they persist. Try to catch yourself and replace the negative self-talk with positive self-talk. It can help to write down and rehearse saying positive, reassuring, and humorous thoughts. Think of things you can tell yourself to help you feel better and manage the challenges of living with MS, such as, “I am doing the best I can.” In preparing for a particular challenge it helps to talk to yourself in a way that will increase your feelings of control over the situation. Tell yourself, “I’ll use my problem-solving skills to make a plan.”

5. Use support from others. There are a number of ways you can use support from others to help you manage emotions and develop resilience. A supportive family member or friend is a great place to start. For more formal support, you may want to reach out to MS support groups, telephone networks, Web-based discussion groups, church groups, or therapy. Other options for finding informal support include joining a social group, such as a book club, hobby association, historical or arts group, or a volunteer organization.