The National Institutes of Health defines emotional wellness as “the ability to successfully handle life’s stresses and adapt to change and difficult times.” This definition clearly encompasses the fact that life will include stress, change, and difficult times but that it is your handling of these that identifies you as having emotional wellness.
Emotional wellness is often overlooked when you are taking care of the physical side of a chronic illness like MS. You make sure to go to the neurologist for regular visits, take your DMT, and visit a variety of specialists to attend to other physical symptoms like mobility concerns, pain, etc., but what about your emotional health? It can be extremely difficult to prioritize one’s emotional health when there are so many other pressing needs but if you are experiencing an unhealthy level of negative emotions, it can have a major effect on other areas of your health such as sleep, energy level, relationships, nutrition, and more.
It can also be difficult to tell when you’re experiencing low emotional health because some of the symptoms of depression and anxiety may overlap with MS symptoms like disturbed sleep and fatigue. Medications may also be causing unwanted side effects that add to emotional well-being concerns. It’s important to note that even if there is an explanation for why you are feeling the way that you are, such as a new diagnosis or medication, it does not diminish that you are living that experience. The emotions are no less real, and they may be reducing your quality of life.
Being diagnosed with a chronic illness like MS means that you have to process and adapt to changes that you haven’t planned for. There is usually a period of shock, maybe some denial, grieving the life you thought you would have, and hopefully acceptance and adjustment. These phases do not necessarily occur as a linear process, and you may have to revisit them as your MS changes over time.
You do not need to be in the “acceptance” stage to improve your emotional wellness. You can work to increase and build up your emotional wellness at any time. Although there are many areas to explore within emotional wellness, let’s discuss a few that come up often.
MS and Anxiety & Depression
Anxiety and depression are common symptoms of MS. Though the numbers vary from different sources, it seems likely that upwards of 60% of people living with MS experience symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, a much higher percentage than the general population. These feelings can be the result of a new diagnosis, a change in function and ability due to MS, or can be caused by the neuro-inflammatory or neuro-degenerative process of the disease itself.
Depression and anxiety are treatable, even when another condition like MS is present. Even mild depression can affect your overall well-being and should be taken seriously.
If you think you may be experiencing feelings of depression or anxiety, it is important to speak to a healthcare professional to see what options are available to you. You can start with your PCP, neurologist, or a mental health professional like a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) or therapist. For many people living with MS, a combination of talk therapy and medication can be very helpful. You may experiment with medication as a temporary bridge to help you over a rough spot and get you into a place where you can work on other coping strategies, or you may discover that it works well for you long-term. Your provider should be open to a conversation with you about your treatment preferences so that the two of you can come up with a plan that you are comfortable with.
Make Emotional Health A Priority
Schedule emotional health time so it’s got a space on your calendar. It is often easier to proactively maintain emotional well-being by regularly spending time focused on it, rather than playing catch-up once you’re drained. Spending time outdoors, mindful stretching, seeing a friend for coffee, journalling, or petting an animal can boost your mood and energy and allow you to become more resilient. Of course, it’s not always possible to predict when life will get crazy.
How you handle stress directly feeds into your emotional well-being. Stress is a normal and expected part of life, but how you perceive, manage, and respond to stress has a big impact on its effects on you. Although not directly correlated, many people living with MS say they experience more or worse symptoms when they are stressed. Take the time to check in and try to understand what is causing your stress so that you can address the issue directly. Are you overbooked and need to say no to some activities? Define your highest priority and build your schedule from there. Is your brain just overloaded and frazzled feeling? Consider trying a mindfulness or meditation exercise.
There are many options to explore related to mindfulness and meditation, so do some searching and experiment with the ones that sound interesting to you (See ‘Five Mindfulness & Meditation Exercises’ above for some ideas). Remember that not every method will work for everybody, so if one technique doesn’t seem to be helping or you dislike doing it, look for something else to try.
Take time regularly to check in with yourself and honestly evaluate how you are feeling. This check in should encompass your emotional, mental, and physical state. Often times, emotions can manifest physically and paying attention to things like a racing heart, headache, or upset tummy can give you clues that something is wrong and a place to start to fix it. Taking a few deep breaths can slow a racing heart while also grounding you and giving you the opportunity to delve deeper into the feeling.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, is there something that you can reach out for help with? There are many different types of people you can ask including support partners, friends, family, and health professionals like your doctor or a therapist. Most of the people in your life would love the opportunity to share how much they care but they aren’t sure of the best way. Have a conversation about what would truly be helpful to you to involve them.
Talk with your neurologist about the symptoms you’re experiencing and ask them to do a medication review to ensure that medications aren’t causing distress in unintended ways.
Emotional wellness is not a destination, and the path is not linear. You may feel great one day and distressed the next, you may find an extremely helpful strategy that doesn’t work 100% of the time. It’s okay, normal, and expected to use different strategies in different situations and on different days, and some days you may need to sit with uncomfortable emotions because that’s part of being human too.