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    You are here : Home » About MS » Multiple Sclerosis Treatments » MS Health Tips » Stress and MS

    Stress and MS

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    StressFurther Information

    Don't Make It Worse Than It Really Is 08 June 2004
    Do you worry? About having Multiple Sclerosis? About getting worse? About who'll look after you and how you'll manage for money? Bet you do!

    Our New Pathways survey last year showed that MS-related stress was relatively high, but almost everyone expressed a desire to learn ways to deal with it.

    To recognise you're stressed is a good first step. The next step is to change your more irrational beliefs about MS to more rational ones.

    Irrational and Rational Beliefs

    What are 'irrational' and 'rational' beliefs? Irrational beliefs are less based on reality and less helpful to you. Rational beliefs are more reality-based and more helpful.

    Here's an example of an irrational belief: "It's awful that I have MS because I can't do anything for myself!"

    A more rational version might be: "MS is a pain in the arse, but I can manage, although at times it's not easy."

    The main message is that, generally speaking, we have almost total control over the stress we experience about MS. Why? Because we generate the stress we experience by going over the top in the way we think about things.

    If we question our irrational MS beliefs and tone them down or reject them completely, we will experience little or no stress.

    Is it really 'terrible' and awful?'

    Doubters will now say, "Yes, but having MS is truly terrible and of course it makes us worry!" I disagree.

    Look around you. Your friends and colleagues clearly do not all respond to events similarly. In fact, some people with severe MS symptoms are less stressed than others who have milder ones.

    Stress about MS was high among the sample surveyed. Interestingly, younger readers with fewer years of MS reported more stress than older readers who'd had MS longer.

    What was happening? The first group had less time to learn to convert their extreme, exaggerated beliefs into more down-to-earth 'it's-a-problem-but-could-be-much-worse' way of looking at things.

    Let's look at an extreme MS belief to show how it can be toned down into a less stress-creating ogre, and possibly rejected out of hand. "It's just terrible that I have MS because it has totally destroyed my chances of being a rock star!"

    Are words like, 'terrible' or 'awful' really appropriate here? Is it really terrible if the food store has run out of ice cream? Why is it terrible if a person has MS? The word 'terrible' might be relevant if a person was to be tortured to death or be plagued with intense pain for the rest of their life.

    Instead, to tone it all down, words like 'unfortunate' or maybe 'inconvenient' should be used instead of 'awful' Sounds different doesn't it?

    "It's unfortunate that I have MS because it has made it more difficult to be a rock star."

    The meaning of the sentence has now changed. The sense of hopelessness, powerlessness any dread no longer applies.

    I've told you a million times - don't exaggerate

    The problem here is that we often exaggerate our reactions by "going over the top" in the words we use to describe them. Then, to make things worse, we act as if the exaggeration is a true picture of reality! It's not.

    Imagine the emotional distress associated with the belief that it's awful to have MS. Getting up in the morning each day would be distinctly unpleasant. Potentially nice happenings would be instantly transformed into bad ones. The orange juice is delicious, but there's no guarantee it will be tomorrow. Indeed, the chances of having a pleasant day would be almost nil.

    Perceptions of the day would be distorted. Minor happenings would be translated into disasters. ('Stupid, awkward me! I've dropped my toothbrush again. I just know disasters will happen to poor me today'.)

    Nice things would be ignored or devalued. (He was so much nice to me than yesterday. I wonder what's up?)

    Meanwhile, stress would continually rise. After a while, everything would contribute to having a bad day. Stress would exacerbate symptoms.

    In turn, MS symptoms would heighten stress. Finally, stress would lead to more stress-producing beliefs. Stress, at this juncture, would have become self-generating.

    Think what this would be like. By the end of the day, stress levels would have gone over the top. Emotions would be raw. Levels of fatigue would be high. Feelings of worthlessness and helplessness would be rampant. This is the description of a very, very unhappy puppy!

    It needn't be this way. It's probably true that we all have a tendency to exaggerate our emotions and harbour outrageous beliefs, but through increased awareness and diligent practice these can be tempered, if not totally controlled.

    You can do this. The next time you're feeling highly stressed, ask yourself what specifically you've been thinking about. It's probably one of three categories of irrational thinking:

    1. The world is unfair.
    2. Others are unfair.
    3. Things aren't perfect.
    For a couple of days write down your thoughts as they occur.
    • Focus on the underlying belief.
    • Focus on the underlying belief. Try to fit them into these three categories.
    • Pay attention to how you felt when you thought about these beliefs. Then, vigorously refute these beliefs.
    Ask yourself questions such as:
    1. What's fair?
    2. Do you mean that fairness implies that you must always get your way, never be frustrated, always feel good and never be dissatisfied?
    3. Why is it a disaster if you don't get what you deserve?
    4. Why must the world be fair?
    5. Where is it written that others shouldn't be unfair?
    6. Isn't it a little egocentric to demand perfection of others and/or oneself?

    Your extreme, hard-to-defend beliefs should be translated into a form which is less extreme and more defensible. Try toning down any irrational belief that enters your head, and keep at it. Practise, practise, practise.

    The link between irrational beliefs and stress is quite subtle and most people aren't even aware they're doing it. And after years of stressing themselves, they've become experts.

    Change is not a one-step exercise. It's a process of failure followed by success, until the goal is reached. Don't be discouraged. As you continue monitoring your beliefs you'll realise that your awareness is increasing. You'll reach the point when you catch yourself every time. You'll probably become aware of other irrational beliefs which you'd overlooked before.

    A tremendous aid in the learning process is to ask your friends and family to help you in your quest for less stress. Kids are especially adept at this and squeal with glee every time they find grown-ups uttering an irrational belief.

    The important thing is to consciously refute your irrational beliefs and replace them with their more rational alternatives.

    Caution: This process will not result in you smiling and laughing twenty-four hours a day. It will not guarantee that nasty things won't happen to you. You may not completely rid yourself of all irrational thinking for the remainder of your life.

    But you will find that your MS-related stress will moderate, you will be more relaxed, and you'll be capable of getting on with your life.

    That's enough!

    Sam Long Ph.D is a retired psychology professor. He has personal experience of living with a chronic illness as he has had Young Parkinson's Disease for around 18 years.

    Source : New Pathways September/October 2002

    © Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre (MSRC)

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