Everyone can relate to feeling stressed from time to time. It’s part of being human.

Stress is a typical response when there’s a perceived threat to survival or your way of life. Your body’s natural response to stress — wanting to run away from it or fight it — isn’t usually an option.

Stress isn’t always negative. Major life events like moving, starting a new job, or having a baby can cause stress, too.

When stress is ongoing, it can start to affect your well-being. Stress can cause various symptoms, including headaches, tension, sleep difficulty, and mood changes. Long-term stress can lead to an anxiety disorder or depression and may cause physical symptoms.

Avoiding stress altogether can be impossible, but you can find ways to respond better to stress. When you live with multiple sclerosis (MS), finding ways to manage your stress is an important part of managing your condition.

MS is an autoimmune disease. The immune system is designed to attack harmful invaders like viruses or bacteria. In MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks myelin, the protective coating on the nerves. This results in damage to the myelin.

There may be a link between stress and autoimmune diseases like MS. One 2018 study showed that people with stress-related conditions are often more likely to develop an autoimmune disease. However, experts need more research on the topic.

Stress is a risk factor for MS flares, but researchers do not fully understand why yet. We know so far that stress can cause various emotional and physical symptoms. If you’re already dealing with symptoms of MS or its treatments, the extra toll of stress may make you feel worse.

MS lesions are areas of damage in the nervous system. Doctors can see them on an MRI scan. New lesions look different from older ones. Researchers have been studying how different factors may influence the formation of new lesions.

In a small 2020 study, researchers found that experiencing stress can contribute to worsening disease progression in people with MS.

A 2013 study explored the effects of positive and negative stressful events. The researchers defined negative stress as a threat to the person or their family. The study showed that periods of negative stress resulted in more brain lesions. Positive stress events did not.

Garden-variety stress is unlikely to cause symptoms that mimic MS. However, you may have an anxiety disorder if you experience long-term stress unrelated to any particular, temporary factor in your life.

One type of anxiety disorder is panic disorder, which can cause panic attacks. Panic attacks can have symptoms that are similar to the symptoms of MS, such as tingling, numbness, or chest pain.

In addition, sometimes stress can aggravate the symptoms of other conditions that mimic MS. Conversion disorder tends to occur after prolonged stress. This condition causes physical symptoms without any physical explanation. Often it can present with symptoms like tremors, weakness, paralysis, or numbness.

Stressful events and experiences are a part of life, and can be hard to completely avoid them. It’s not about eliminating stress but about finding ways to cope.

Here are some stress management strategies to try:

  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness means focusing on the present moment instead of getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future. To start, you can take a few moments to sit quietly and focus on your breath. Try to become more aware of your environment: the scent, sight, sound, and feel of your surroundings.
  • Deep breathing: Deep breathing can help you manage some of the physical effects of stress. When you’re focused on your breath, there’s no room for other thoughts. To do this, try breathing in slowly through your nose. Exhale even more slowly through pursed lips.
  • Social connection: A 2022 study showed that maintaining strong social relationships is good for your health. Feeling well-supported can improve your physical and emotional well-being. Sharing your experiences can help you feel less alone and improve your coping ability. Make time to connect with friends and family, or find ways to get involved in your community.
  • Counseling: A therapist is specially trained to provide mental health support. They can help you cope with difficult situations that contribute to stress. You can search for a therapist with experience working with people with chronic conditions like MS.

A flare is when MS symptoms get worse or new symptoms develop that last at least 24 to 48 hours. The following triggers may link with MS flares:

  • Overheating: Anything that causes your body temperature to rise can trigger a flare. Do your best to avoid spending too much time in the direct sun. Avoid saunas or hot tubs.
  • Illness or infection: Getting sick can trigger MS symptoms. Wash your hands often, practice safe food handling, and get your annual flu shot to help you stay healthy and keep flares at bay.
  • Changes in medication: An MS flare is more likely to occur when there’s a change in the type or dose of your medication. Make sure you understand exactly how to take your medication. Ask your doctor if you’re unsure about any changes to your treatment plan.
  • Smoking: Smoking may link with faster progression of MS. If you smoke, it’s never too late to cut down or quit. Ask your doctor for support if you’re ready to quit.

Being aware of your MS triggers can help you take steps to prevent them. But it’s important to remember that not all flares are preventable.

It’s unclear if there is a direct link between stress and MS flares. Stress can cause various physical and emotional changes that affect how you feel.

You might not get through life without stress, but there are ways to better manage stress and your MS. A good place to start is the National Multiple Sclerosis Society‘s recommendations on stress management.