Stress is an inevitable part of modern life, but too much of it can be devastating to your health.
Ample research has shown that stress plays a major role in multiple sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease in which the brain’s communication with the body is blocked, causing symptoms like fatigue, numbness, dizziness and pain. There is no known cure for MS, but learning to deal with stress and emotions in a healthy manner can help limit the symptoms and allow patients to live more normal lives.
In his book, When the Body Says No, Dr. Gabor Maté dives into the stress-disease connection. In one example, Maté tells the story of a MS patient he called Natalie. Over the course of a few months in 1996, her 16-year-old son was discharged from a drug rehab center and her husband was diagnosed with malignant bowel cancer. While she cared for her husband, she suffered from fatigue, dizziness and ringing in her ears, and finally she went in for a checkup and received her MS diagnosis.
The situation deteriorated. Natalie’s husband was combative and aggressive, and it was after particularly nasty encounters that her symptoms were exacerbated. He went on to have an extra-material affair. All the while, Natalie’s disease got worse and worse.
Her experience was in line with many other people who suffer from multiple sclerosis. One of the earlier studies on the role of stress in MS diagnoses was published in the Psychosomatic Medicine journal in 1970. “Many students of this disease have voiced the clinical impression that emotional stress may be somehow implicated in the genesis of MS,” the study said.
Numerous studies followed with similar results. In 1988, a study conducted at the University of Colorado School of Medicine found that MS patients who experienced an extremely stressful life event were 3.7 times more likely to suffer a flare-up from the disease. The following year, the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry published a study that found that people were likely to have experienced serious adversity in the six months preceding the first onset of their MS systems. And a review of 20 MS studies from the British Medical Journal found a consistent association between stressful life events and MS exacerbation.
More recently, researchers published a report in European Neurology that found that stressors can be predictors of MS as well. “Significant differences were found between the MS and the control group in their negative emotions and symptoms such as depression, anxiety, obsession, phobia, tense interpersonal relationship and somatization disorder,” the study concluded. “The psychosocial factors are closely associated with MS onset and may play important roles in the development of the disease.”
A large-scale study recently tracked the influence of stress on the lives of 872 adults and found that how people handle the stress plays a role in how long they live in general. The study found people who maintained a positive attitude even in the face of stressful situations showed fewer signs of chronic inflammation.
“Positive emotions, and how they can help people in the event of stress, have really been overlooked,” Nancy Sin, a postdoctoral fellow at Pennsylvania State University, said to the Daily Mail.
However, there is another component that can be overlooked in the onset and exacerbation of multiple sclerosis: It’s not just outside stress alone that precedes the disease. Most of the MS patients that Maté treated also reported a pattern of repressing their own emotions, ignoring anger or annoyance and constantly prioritizing the health or needs of others over their own well-being.
“I need to know when to withdraw from my helping mode,” Natalie told Maté as she continued to care for her abusive husband. “But I just can’t; if someone needs help, I have to do it.”
By repressing her emotions, the doctor suggests, his patient was subjecting her body to chronic stress, probably without even realizing it.
“Chronic stress is activation of the stress mechanisms over long periods of time when a person is exposed to stressors that cannot be escaped either because she does not recognize them or because she has no control over them,” Maté wrote. “We no longer sense what is happening in our bodies and cannot therefore act in self-preserving ways.”
The same scenario shows up in his other patients: Barbara, a psychotherapist with MS whose symptoms started after she housed a sociopathic man, against better judgment, or Véronique, who kept her symptoms secret because she didn’t want to place an emotional burden on anyone else.
The situation can persist, with people giving and giving at the expense of their own well-being, until MS or other disease forces a reckoning. “My body says no to me frequently, and I keep going,” Natalie said. “I don’t learn.”
That’s not to say that people who suffer from MS or other diseases should blame themselves for their misfortune, for not being able to tap into their emotions and understand and prioritize their own needs. That attitude is counterproductive, Maté cautions. “A search for scientific understanding is incompatible with moralizing and judgment,” he wrote. Disease is not a punishment but a physiological reality.
The lesson is that limiting stress or finding healthy ways to process it can be a lifesaver in avoiding multiple sclerosis or alleviating symptoms in people who already have it. One intervention that has shown to be very impactful is mindful meditation, when people sit in silence and allow their minds to untether themselves from any particular thought.
One recent study from the King’s College London found that MS patients who took meditation classes experienced relief from their symptoms and less overall distress. The meditators reported lower pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression and impact of MS than the control group that did not do any mindfulness work.
“The effectiveness of mind-body therapies may lie in their ability to facilitate stress reduction, relaxation, and improvement of mood,” another meditation study noted, “which in turn may affect the degree to which psychosocial factors can negatively affect quality of life.”
Whatever method we find to stay healthy, an honest relationship with ourselves and our stresses seems to be key. “If we gain the ability to look into ourselves with honesty, compassion and with unclouded vision, we can identify the ways we need to take care of ourselves,” Maté wrote. “We can see the areas of the self formerly hidden in the dark.”