Helping your body fight stress

There are two important steps you can take to fight the negative effects of stress: building up your body's defenses and using relaxation techniques.

Your body is naturally equipped to deal with a certain amount of stress. Your body's defenses play an important part in how stress affects you. If your reserves are low, stress can have a bigger impact. Building up your defenses is a "long-term" plan for reducing stress. It will also improve your overall health and give you more energy. To help prepare your body to deal with stress:

  • Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Most people need 7-8 hours per night, and some people with MS may need more. Get extra sleep before family gatherings or important events.
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. Good nutrition can improve your ability to handle stress.
  • Try to avoid using caffeine, cigarettes, or alcohol as a way of dealing with stress. They can make your condition worse.

It's easy to relax when you're not feeling stressed. It takes a special effort to learn how to relax in a stressful situation. There is no "right way" to relax that works for everyone. Most people use a combination of methods, and find that different situations call for different ways of relaxing. You may need to try several techniques before finding the one that works best for you. Here are a few things that many people with MS find helpful:

  • yoga
  • tai chi
  • walking
  • swimming
  • meditation and deep breathing exercises
  • taking part in a favorite hobby, such as gardening, reading, or listening to music

Check with your healthcare professional before starting a new physical relaxation program like yoga or tai chi. Depending on your location, there may be special versions of these exercises designed especially for people with MS. These exercises can help beat stress, and they may also improve some of your symptoms.

More than just stress?

There are many things you can do on your own to reduce stress and improve your overall health. However, some of the symptoms of stress are very similar to those of depression. Depression is a common disorder that is related to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and people with MS are at greater than average risk for it. Fortunately, depression can be treated safely and effectively. It's important to recognize the signs so that you can get treatment.

Signs of depression:

  • feeling "sad" or "blue"
  • losing interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • decreased energy (may also be a sign of MS)
  • "slowing down" of mental or physical activity.
  • weight gain or loss, or changes in your appetite
  • feeling anxious or agitated
  • having trouble concentrating, being indecisive, or having memory loss
  • feeling guilty or worthless
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Because some signs of depression are similar to those of MS, having some of these signs does not necessarily mean that you have depression. Still, if you have had some of these symptoms, speak to your health care professional. Depression can be effectively treated, and this can go a long way to helping you reduce stress and feel better.

Stress and MS

Stress is a part of everyone's life, but people with MS have extra sources of stress. Dealing with symptoms, making decisions about treatment, and modifying your activities to adjust to MS can all add to the stress in your life. A certain level of stress is good – it keeps you motivated and alert. But too much stress can have negative effects on your health.

We still don't understand the exact relationship between stress and MS. Many people with MS notice that their symptoms get worse during stressful times. So far, researchers have not reached a final conclusion about whether stress actually does make MS worse. Both MS and stress can affect your emotions. Stress has a different impact on each person with MS because the symptoms and severity of MS vary widely from person to person. Each person also has their own way of reacting to stress. Regardless, everyone with MS can benefit from reducing the stress in their lives. This won't cure MS, but it will improve your overall health and free up more of your energy to cope with the condition.

You can't avoid stress altogether. Instead, the key is to deal with stress effectively. Learn to recognize your own personal "stress signs", identify the sources of stress in your life, and develop coping strategies. Your healthcare professional, friends and family can all help you to deal with stress.

Stress busting tips

There's no doubt about it – MS can make your life more complicated. Your plans may be disrupted by unpredictable symptoms. You may need to adjust your activities to fit changes in your balance and mobility. Each person has their own challenges, and they can all lead to increased stress. Here are a few simple ways to reduce the stress in your life:


  • Set priorities for yourself. Organize your time so that you do the things that are most important to you first. Let less important things go.
  • Identify things that cause you the most stress. Then, look for ways to get around them. For example, if you find traveling stressful, see if you can make a phone call instead.
  • Concentrate on doing one thing at a time. Once you have finished a task, take a moment to let yourself feel good about getting it done. Take a rest if you need it, and then move on.
  • If you are running late, or if you feel overwhelmed, cancel or reschedule your appointments.
  • Learn to say "no." Save your energy for the things that are most important to you.
  • Look for aids and devices that make it easier to do your day-to-day activities.

Get support.

  • Don't try to do everything yourself. Ask your friends and family members to help with some of your responsibilities.
  • Consider joining a support group for people with MS. Being able to share your concerns and experiences with others can give you an emotional boost. The experiences of others can help you solve your problems – they may have been through the same thing, and can provide practical tips. You can also use your experiences to help others.

Plan ahead.

  • Think about which situations cause you stress. Then, plan ahead to minimize or avoid these predictable sources of stress. For example, if waiting in line is stressful for you, bring a book to help pass the time. If you find the morning rush stressful, get up 15 minutes earlier so that you don't feel so rushed.
  • Schedule breaks for yourself throughout the day. This will give you a chance to rest, and will also prevent the stress that comes from getting "behind schedule".
  • If your symptoms are unpredictable, think ahead about what you'll do if the symptoms start during an activity. Make plans for where to meet or call if you need to change your plans.
  • Keep things that you use regularly (such as your car) in good condition.
  • Keep extra supplies of things you use frequently. "Restock" long before you're about to run out an item.