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Stress and MS: Keeping Pressure at Bay

Reading time | 5 min

Stress has been a huge factor in my MS journey. In fact, I am convinced that my first episode was brought on and accelerated greatly by stress.

My son had just started school and our calendar was filled with a thousand and one things to remember. Home life was no different with the run up to Christmas and the countless social gatherings that entails (why do we ALL have to make ‘one last date before Christmas’?).

I also had a ridiculous workload. I was working essentially two jobs – my full-time day job as well as my hobby: an editorial website for local mums for which I decided to run a special advent feature throughout December. I never actually counted, but I must have spent over 60 hours per week on my laptop.

When I eventually closed the lid on said laptop just days before Christmas, Multiple Sclerosis reared its ugly head for the first time and my journey with the disease began. I know stress wasn’t the cause, but I strongly believe it was the reason why my first episode was the most severe of all my relapses since.

Stress is a part of life

The world has changed and our lives with it. Technology has gotten us to a point where we are constantly expected to be present and to react immediately. We don’t wait for a letter in the post anymore, a quickly typed message on a phone has replaced meeting up in person and we’re all expected to have the answers to questions at the snap of a finger.

On top of this, the modern person is expected to have it all: a successful career, happy and thriving children and a loving marriage with a dedicated and supporting partner. I’m not sure about you, but I often end up feeling like I’m doing none of those things properly because I’m simply spreading myself too thin!

Since my diagnosis, I have actively learnt how to make daily life a little more chilled. A few of the things I picked up along the way have become fixed parts of my daily routine. Some of these might sound a bit “hocus pocus” to you, but I invite you to be open to experiment and see where the journey might take you!

Meditation

This is at the top of my list because it’s a biggy for me. You might think meditation involves sitting in the lotus position while a teacher chants incomprehensible stuff until you go into a trance-like state, but while that can be the case, it doesn’t have to be. There are various ways to meditate and you should find what works for you. You can go to meditation classes, download an app on your phone or visit YouTube for tutorials to guide you. 

I simply sit up comfortably, but straight, with my hands in my lap and concentrate on my breathing. Distracting thoughts are simply acknowledged and sent on their way like little puffy clouds. Some days are easier than others, but that’s not important.

I now meditate most mornings, in between dropping my son at school and continuing with my busy day. Just ten minutes of this has helped me hugely with managing fatigue and starting the day fresh.

Practising gratitude

I have a notebook next to my bed. Every evening, I try to write about five things I am grateful for. At first, I found this really difficult, and sometimes still do – especially during times when things are tough… But, like my morning meditation, this has become a regular ritual I do every evening. Having a chronic illness can negatively impact on your mental well-being. When going through a relapse, for example, it can be hard to find the good in a day. Which is exactly why this exercise is so helpful. It helps me focus on the good things that happened too, however tiny.

As a mum with MS, often my list includes seemingly small things – like not getting too tired on a visit to the playground or movie snuggles with my son on a day I don’t feel up to heading outside. Sometimes the things I am thankful for are materialistic – like getting a new jumper, and that’s OK, as long as you focus on how it makes you feel. Is the softness making you happy, was it nice to treat yourself to something new? You’ll be surprised at how helpful this exercise can be.

Mindfulness

What is mindfulness really? For me, being mindful means to do devote your full attention to the thing you are doing. I have had times in the past when I’ve been so busy at work that I literally did not know what to do first. I joke about it now, but it often got to a point where I simply got up and removed myself completely by doing something ridiculously unimportant, and focus on that.

I would go and photocopy some forms or do some filing. These things were part of my workload but at the absolute bottom of my priorities list. Just ten minutes helped me refuel and get my head into a calm and quiet mode again. I didn’t know it then, but I was actually practising mindfulness which helped me approach my pile of top priorities with new vigour.

The Takeaway: Be kind to yourself

Since that first year, I’ve never gotten sucked into Christmas madness again. Instead I am focussing on being happy with just managing the most important things when life gets busy. When a busy week looms, I review what I would ideally like to get done, and then I radically cut out what can wait and what would add unnecessary stress. I often do this with pen and paper for optimum effect. 

This was a huge shift towards a different approach to life: Being kind to myself. I forgive myself for not managing it all. I talk to my inner voice, the one that’s always telling me to be perfect. I tell it that I won’t listen to it anymore, and that I will be looking after myself instead.  

I’m still very much learning, but I’m getting there. Hopefully this will go a way to help you get there too.

UK/MED/18/0314 November 2018