“THE GREATEST WEAPON AGAINST STRESS IS OUR ABILITY TO CHOOSE ONE THOUGHT OVER ANOTHER”
I find the winter the most stressful time of the year. Holidays, parties, and events. Gift shopping, writing greeting cards, snow, ice, and more ice! What should be a relaxing fun season spending quality time with family and friends instead turns into a sort of controlled chaos that I lose sleep over. I spend way too much time agonizing over how I’m going to get everything done on time. I worry if I chose the right gifts or if I forgot anyone. I obsess on travel details and party menus and what I’m going to wear. When did I become such a worrywart? What happened to that girl who used to pull off four or five Christmas parties within a week or so without batting an eyelash? Okay, I know what happened; chronic illness, but I don’t have time for that. My exhausted body is clearly trying to tell me to slow down!! Stress takes a huge toll on a person but most of us aren’t even aware of the constant pressure we put on ourselves and the effect on our body and brain.
Acute stress causes the brain to shift from executive control and thinking centers in the frontal lobe to our emotional and reactive centers in the amygdala.1 The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions, memory, motivation, and survival instincts.2 The stress response is the body’s automatic emergency system. It was developed to keep us safe from harm. The dangers our ancestors faced were for their actual survival. Their conflicts were quick. They either escaped or fought and then their nervous system returned to normal. Modern threats are much less clear. Often stress is a product of our emotions, perceptions, and assumptions. The stress response will activate whenever it senses your body is lacking control or expressing anxiety, helplessness, sadness, or anger. To switch off this response the body needs to sense the threat has passed so that the relaxation response engages. If you are living in a chronic state of ‘fight or flight’, it becomes more difficult to think rationally because both systems cannot be engaged at the same time. When the primitive part of the brain, the brain stem, is engaged by the stress response, rational and critical thinking is diverted from the prefrontal cortex.3 This means that we literally can’t think clearly when our bodies are under stress and it’s the reason people can’t remember exact details from a traumatic event.
I admit I used to be one of those people who internally rolled my eyes when people said they were stressed out. I didn’t get it. My personality is to take the hits and keep on going. Then one day I realized I couldn’t physically function. Everyone experiences stress but as anyone with Multiple Sclerosis soon discovers, experiencing stress with MS is completely different. You get hit with crushing fatigue. It’s literally hard to get out of bed. Your body does not want to do what you want it to do and you can’t even think about the day ahead. In fact, It’s hard to think at all and the coordination of the body just goes. Why is that?
The Multiple Sclerosis Society booklet, Taming Stress, reports: “During times of stress, more energy is required to think, problem-solve, and handle daily life. At stressful and demanding times, symptoms may be experienced more strongly because the energy to deal with them and get on with life has been drained. Stress may add to the feeling of overwhelming fatigue, which is already one of the most burdensome symptoms of MS.”
To complicate things further, the body can’t tell the difference between positive and negative stress. For example; the excitement of something you’re looking forward to, or some sort of conflict. Researchers from Northwest University reported that negative stress can trigger new MS activity and positive stress reduced the likelihood of new lesions on MRI. The study author, David C. Mohr Ph.D., also stated; “Being in stress management therapy reduced the development of new brain lesions.”4
This is proof that we can have some control over disease with the way we choose to think and the way we choose to react to stressful situations. First, we need to be able to recognize negative stress so we can practice ways to change our mindset.5
Signs of negative stress:
*Anxiety * Fear *Anger *Sadness
*Loneliness *Irritability *Shame *Jealousy
*Panic Attacks *Nightmares *Depression *Worrying
*Resentment *Disappointment *Feeling overwhelmed
Physical signs of chronic stress-
* Insomnia * High Blood Pressure
* Memory loss * Heart palpitations
* Chronic pain * Muscle spasms or tightness
* Appetite changes * Sleeping too much
* Headaches * Fatigue
* Stomachaches * Lowered immunity
Emotional stress is part of having a chronic illness like MS. Once we’re able to recognize it for what it is, we can learn coping methods to reduce the intensity and try to control the effect on the immune system. We don’t want stress to immobilize us. We can control how we interpret situations. We can control how we react to them. We can learn to recognize stress triggers and plan for stress management and prevention. At the end of the day, we need to take a breath and re-access what’s important. What do we want to spend our energy on? Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break and accept that we can’t control everything and that good enough is good enough.
1 2 Weeks to A Younger Brain, An Innovative Program for a Better Memory and a Sharper Mind, Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, Chap.3, p53 2 www.thebrainmadesimple.com/amygdala.html 3 www.upliftconnect .com/Stress:It’s-Not-In-Your-Head, July 28,2017,Melody Walford 4 www.healthline.com/health-news/ms-stress-could-predict-ms-disease-activity-121813#1 5 https://www.nationalmssociety.org/NationalMSSociety/media/MSNationalFiles/Brochures/Brochure-Taming-Stress.pdf