Surprising Signs of Stress
Stress isn't always a bad thing. It can help you work harder and motivate you to do your best. But ongoing stress takes a toll, especially on those with multiple sclerosis. Stress triggers a flood of adrenaline and cortisol, causing health problems, such as stiff muscles, fatigue, depression, clumsiness and sleep problems. Because many signs of stress overlap with those of multiple sclerosis, chronic stress usually results in a worsening of MS symptoms. Everyone’s body reacts differently under pressure, but here are some common warning signs of stress for those with MS, and what you can do about them.
Spasticity, a feeling of stiffness in the limbs, is one of the most common symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Tense muscles -- tightening in your arms, legs, back, facial and jaw muscles -- are also a sign of too much stress. All this muscle tension can result in pain, tremors, shakiness, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder and bruxism (teeth grinding). These remedies can help:
- Yoga elongates muscles to reduce tightness and pain, and promotes muscle relaxation through deep breathing and meditation.
- Soaking in a warm bath releases muscle tension. Adding Epsom salts, which contain magnesium, helps relax stiff muscles.
That's right -- stress may be to blame for your back pain. People who hold stress in their bodies often unwittingly tense their back muscles, which can lead to chronic pain. Crutches and walkers can make things worse because, if used incorrectly, they can throw off your gait. First, make sure you have the right size mobility aid. And if back pain strikes, rest isn't the answer. Inactivity weakens core muscles that support the back, causing more pain. Opt for suitable exercises to relieve pain and reduce stress, like yoga (chair yoga if you have limited mobility) and walking. A physical therapist or personal trainer can show you how to strengthen those all-important core muscles.
More than half of people with multiple sclerosis experience significant depression at some point. And because chronic stress increases the risk of depression, cutting back on stress is vital in battling the illness. But diagnosing depression can be difficult in MS patients, since symptoms of multiple sclerosis, such as fatigue, loss of interest in usual activities, difficulty concentrating and weight gain or loss, can overlap those of depression. Compounding the problem is the fact that interferon beta medications may increase the risk for depression. If you think you might be depressed, talk to your physician or to a mental health professional.
Eighty percent of MS patients experience fatigue. Lassitude, a pervasive kind of exhaustion specific to MS patients, can make you feel tired even after a good night’s rest. Other reasons for fatigue include sleep interrupted by MS symptoms and the side effects of medications. But fatigue can also be a result, and a symptom, of stress. Stress puts extra demands on physical and mental capabilities already pushed to the limit. To reduce stress-induced fatigue, prioritize your to-do list and eliminate anything nonessential. Resist the urge to overdo it, even when you're feeling good, or you’ll pay the price the next day.
Multiple sclerosis patients who have decreased mobility often fight the battle of the bulge. But weight gain can also be a sign of MS-induced stress, since when you’re stressed you’re more likely to overeat and reach for junk food. To reduce “stress-eating,” exercise every day. Those workouts will burn calories and help you relax. Cut out foods that provide little nutritional value. Try keeping a “stress log” in which you record the times and situations during which you felt stressed. This can help you learn to avoid or control circumstances that lead you to overeat.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, it may be a sign of stress. Multiple sclerosis symptoms, such as periodic limb movements and frequent nighttime urination, can interrupt your sleep, as can the side effects of some MS medications. Worry can also keep you up at night. And then there's the vicious cycle of stress and sleep -- difficulty sleeping increases stress, which makes it hard to sleep, and so on. Try these tips to reduce stress and improve sleep:
- Practice yoga, meditation and/or deep breathing
- Exercise daily
- Stick to the same daily sleep schedule
- Don’t use the bedroom for anything other than sleep or sex