Stress is a huge topic. There is no way I could cover it completely in one post. It is significant though, and I would be remiss to ignore it. Stress is already well known to aggravate symptoms in MS. It goes hand in hand with fatigue. As a culture we are obsessed with it. With so much already available, what do I have to add that has not already been said?
I can share my own experience. Nobody else can do that.
I am coming out of a month of higher than usual stress from myself. I am also right in the middle of a personal life skills project that includes learning the differences between good stress and bad stress, and how to deal with them.
Good stress is the kind of stress in which you are in immediate physical danger and your body kicks into overdrive to handle the situation. I got my taste of that at the end of January when a silver ford pickup truck ran a red light and collided with my vehicle. I became very keenly aware of my surroundings and everything felt like it was moving in slow motion high definition for a short period of time. I swerved and braked hard, confining the impact to the front left corner of my car. I got out with minor bruising that went away in a matter of days. I was able to handle the situation and the events that followed. My car, on the other hand, was totaled. After everyone else had gone and I was waiting for a tow truck, my system came crashing back down, and I was able to find a “normal” state again.
What transpired after that initial event is a perfect example of good stress. Good stress peaks, helps you to handle a situation, and then reverts to a “normal” state of functioning. Bad stress is when you go into that heightened state, yet for whatever reason you are not able to revert to your normal relaxed state of functioning. I spent over a month dealing with insurance, rentals, dealerships, insurance, and the works. It made getting to work hard, which was stressful. One of the worst ice storms in recent history crippled our entire area, which slowed everything down and made it more stressful.
What does all this have to do with MS?
Well, dealing with MS is another prime example of the second “toxic” kind of stress. You don’t know how your disease will progress in the future. With RRMS you don’t know if the new symptom that cropped up is permanent or just visiting. You don’t know if/when old symptoms will crop up again. You never really know for sure what’s in store for you that day. It is one long string of points in which your mind and body want to ramp up into a fight/flight mode, but there is never anything to tell it when the danger has passed, and it’s ok to relax again. This is where the life skills I’m learning come into play.
There are two major ways to view anything that happens. They are permanence and pervasiveness. They are applicable to both good things that happen, and bad things that happen. They can be written in a graph form, which
makes it much easier to see.
Note this image is not original with me, but from a source I’d like to remain anonymous.
Basically we want to view good things in the upper let hand quadrant, and bad things in the lower right hand quadrant. For example,
I chose to view the collision as “non-permanent” (My car is gone. I can get a new one). I chose to view it as non-pervasive (I was involved in an accident. It does not mean I am a horrible person. It does not mean I have to be miserable in all areas of my life. I don’t owe that to anyone or anything.)
Again, what does this have to do with MS?
Be aware (mindful) of your own response to the symptoms that you are dealing with. Let’s use some concrete examples. Say you fall down in the middle of the sidewalk, or crossing the road. This is an unfortunate thing to have happen, to be sure. Once you have dealt with the immediate situation (Am I injured, am I about to be), let it go. It is one thing that happened at one point in time. Don’t give it more than that. (“I fell down while walking”, not “I always fall down while walking”) Let it have low pervasiveness in how you view the world. (“Well that was unfortunate”, instead of “I am horrible at walking”)
I will finish my story where we started. In spite of the difficulties, I now have a new (to me) car that is almost exactly what I wanted. In dealing with everything in between the initial event and driving my new car home, there were a lot of hiccups along the way. By being mindful of how I viewed what happened and what was happening, I was able to maintain a much more positive outlook. I allowed myself to return back to a “natural” state, instead of getting caught up repeatedly in a high-stress mode. Stress can be a significant influence on MS, and I like to believe that as I continue implementing these skills it will make for a longer, healthier, more enjoyable life, in spite of whatever diagnosis I may have.