It’s no surprise that most people feel stressed out around the holidays. Money is tight, schedules are full, and to-do lists overflow with expectations of what a “perfect” Christmas entails.
While stress can leave the average person feeling rundown and harried, a new study shows that for those with multiple sclerosis (MS), it can even impact the course of their disease.
The MS Stress Test
Researchers at Northwestern University wanted to see if stressful events—whether positive or negative—could predict the formation of new brain lesions in those with MS. They followed 121 MS patients who agreed to undergo regular magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to monitor their disease activity. Over the course of four years, half of the patients underwent stress management therapy for MS while the other half did not.
Every month, patients were interviewed about stressful life events, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. This information was then used to predict enhancing MS lesions on their MRI scans within the following two months.
Participants were asked to classify stressful events as either positive or negative. According to the study, “Negative events were considered ‘major’ if they involved physical threat or threat to the patient’s family structure, and ‘moderate’ otherwise.” Major negative events could include the obvious, such as a death in the family, but having a cheating spouse was rated just as highly on the stress-o-meter.
Positive stressful events could include the birth of a child, a wedding, or landing a new job—all reasons to celebrate but sources of stress nonetheless.
Getting It Off Their Chests (And MRIs)
“Being in stress management therapy reduced the development of new brain lesions,” said study author David C. Mohr, Ph.D., in an interview with Healthline.
Participants who received stress management therapy learned core skills, including relaxation techniques, problem solving, how to focus on positive activities, and the importance of social support. Researchers found that, given the tools to develop these coping skills, the volunteers were able to better manage their stress and successfully reduce their risk of new MS lesions.
Not only did researchers verify what they suspected—that negative stress can trigger new MS activity—but they also discovered that positive stress reduced the likelihood of new lesions on MRI.
“This study adds to a growing literature indicating that MS disease activity is a complex process that involves not only genetic and immune factors, but is also related to an individual’s interaction with their environment.” said Mohr.
Stress is a fact of life, but the trick is to learn coping skills to help you deal with the inevitable. This study provides evidence that, when taught how to manage stress, people with MS fare better.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), “It is important to not fall into the trap of trying to 'avoid stress,' a nearly impossible task given the realities of life.”
Instead, talk to your neurologist about stress management programs in your area. And search out a support group by visiting the NMSS website or the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. Meeting others with MS who face the same stress-inducing obstacles could lead you to resources to help you cope.
Stress Reduction Tips
It’s impossible to avoid all the stress life doles out, but if the holiday season has you feeling especially overwhelmed, perhaps these tips can help.
- Too many tasks on the holiday to-do list? Delegate chores to other "elves."
- Other people’s drama stressing you out? Take a break from those relationships.
- Pace yourself. Avoid overdoing the holiday party rounds and shopping sprees.
- Learn to say “No.” Putting yourself first sometimes doesn't make you a Scrooge.
- Remember, Santa is a fictional character. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Hang up the red cape and rest a while.
- Find time every day to unwind. Leave the electronics behind and commune with nature.
- Realize there's no such thing as perfection. If the cookies are burnt and the tree is crooked, it's the thought that counts.
- Stay in tune with your body. Diet, exercise, and rest are all cornerstones of healthy stress management.