Feeling disconnected from their bodies, people with multiple sclerosis find ways to adapt.
Creating a sense of well-being can help mitigate the negative effects of multiple sclerosis.
That’s what researchers in the Netherlands are saying in their recent study on the debilitating disease.
With multiple sclerosis (MS), the body can start to fail and falter due to various symptoms.
Feelings of “I can” are replaced with “I might be able to.”
“I still remember the first time I experienced muscle spasms in my arm and leg. I could no longer walk or sit normally. It scared me and made me wonder whether it was really my body as I felt totally disconnected from [it],” one person with MS recalled.
As the body is able to do less, experts advise healthcare professionals and people living with MS to focus on the what the body can do.
“I would like to know whether this paper resonates with the MS community,” Hanneke van der Meide-Vijvers, one study author and a postdoctoral researcher at Tranzo Tilburg University, told Healthline. “When it comes to healthcare practice, I strongly advocate a phenomenological perspective in which we start from lived experience rather than a body-mind dualism.”
The study, entitled The Mindful Body: a phenomenology of the body of MS, focused on how people with MS experience their bodies on a daily basis.
The researchers concluded it wasn’t the body that’s limited, but rather the ability to live life fully.
For a person with MS, it’s not the lesions or physical disabilities that they experience on a daily basis. It’s the inability to make a cup of coffee, attend a concert, or drive to a friend’s house.
The phenomenological research design this study followed refers to a tradition of philosophy, originating in Europe, and includes the work of Sartre among others.
The study involved 13 women with relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) for more than five years. The process included personal interviews that took place in the home, a coffee bar, or via Skype and FaceTime.
“It’s a very interesting study,” Kasey Minnis, director of communications for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, told Healthline. “Rather than try to ignore their body, healthcare professionals should be trying to help individuals with MS feel positive within their bodies.”
This small study provides a glimpse into what it is like to live with MS.
People living with MS may experience unusual symptoms.
After a long enough period, these unusual symptoms become mainstream. They become familiar with the strangeness.
A healthy person will consider exercising as long as they can. A person with MS will exercise as much as their body can tolerate.
Ordinary tasks require planning and attention. When the possibilities of the body no longer match aspirations, the two become separated.
“I once had a relapse and had to learn to swallow again,” shares one participant in the study.
The study suggests that “a person with MS ‘splits’ her body to reconnect with her body.”
“My mind likes to dominate over my body,” one participant said, “and now my body gets more chance to speak. There is more balance.”
When a person creates this type of emotional connection it’s called the “body effect”.
This emotion toward the body is reflected in the care given. The study found the 13 women committed to keeping their body in shape, exercising or paying attention to diet, more so than before diagnosis.
But, a person may ignore their limitations for a feeling of freedom. They continue behavior patterns that could be detrimental to their health.
In essence, they harm the body to nourish the soul. These dangers include sauna use, smoking, drinking, and other modifiable risk factors.
“We go to the sauna every Friday evening,” shared one participant. “After the sauna, I always have weak legs and I know the heat is not good for my body, but my spiritual well-being is also important. Going to the sauna is my way of unwinding.”
A person with MS engages in modifying their body as the disease progresses.
This process builds up what’s called the “habitual body.”
The actual body represents life before MS. The habitual body is what one creates with their conscious thinking and actions.
As time goes by, the memory of the old body fades and the new body becomes familiar.
This new body has most likely been altered and changed, so the person with MS must adapt to these changes.
“I had to learn to walk again,” one participant said. “I felt miserable because a lot of people in my neighborhood do not know I have MS. I had the feeling that everyone was peeking though the windows seeing me act weird.”
Worried what others might think, she added, “but yeah, I wanted to recover and moving around was the only way to get there.”
Uncertainty leads to increased awareness and a new appreciation for the body.
A person with MS may find themselves in a constant state of bodily alertness.
This is called the “mindful body”.
“Yesterday I walked in the city center and did some shopping. I noticed that my legs started to swing and that I was more and more leaning against the person I was with. Then I realized it was time to go home,” said one participant.
The researchers suggest that a person living with MS is always connecting with their body, either consciously or unconsciously, “listening to their body.”
This attention toward one’s body may allow them to live as well as possible because they’re aware of their limitations and create a life around them.
To adapt, they must relearn how to recognize the body’s signals. Someone may become especially sensitive to signs of fatigue, such as sensory issues, trouble communicating, or problems concentrating.
During the study, one patient responded, “MS is like the weather as I cannot predict how I will feel in three days, or tomorrow or even a few hours.”
People living with MS can experience bizarre and intense bodily sensations. Basically, the body takes over and wants full attention.
One example of this is the MS hug, a common symptom of MS.
“The MS hug is a feeling in my body. It’s like having an elastic around my waist that gets tighter. At that moment, my body enters a warning phase,” shared one participant. “Like it says, ‘Don’t do any crazy things anymore because were going to tighten it even more!’”
The body can also produce a sense of well-being for people living with MS.
They can get lost in their activities where they experience their body in a positive way.
One participant shared her experience with a cycling class.
In the beginning, her legs felt heavy.
“But, at a certain moment I was so in the flow of the lesson and busy with the group in front of my, that my body fell away,” she said.
This study highlights that uncertainty is more about the here and now rather than the future or long term.
Uncertainty requires planning, loss of spontaneity, and distrust in body. So, the focus shifts to the body, not at the task at hand.
This also brings added anxiety.
Western society demands a fast paced life. Schedules become filled weeks in advance.
Study participants expressed problems with keeping up with society and the need to listen to their body.
They experience a constant struggle between what they feel they can do and what’s on their agenda.
People in the study shared that they attended to their bodies in healing ways by walking, meditation, and dance.
“That’s one benefit of our health and wellness program, which provides exercise and wellness classes,” said Minnis. “Adaptive exercise and recreation can help a person appreciate what their body can do, despite any limitations, and to feel more in touch with their bodily needs.”
“We’ve observed that participating in these activities has more than just physical benefits,” she added. “They often increase mental clarity and emotional well-being.”