Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence
Stress and Multiple Sclerosis: Can Meditation Help?
Angela Senders, ND, MCR
Having MS can be incredibly stressful. Symptoms are unpredictable and can make it difficult to work, raise a family, or socialize; medications are expensive and come with a host of side effects. Many people report that stress aggravates their MS, and recent research confirms a connection between stress and worsening neurological symptoms. Thus, stress-management is an essential component of a comprehensive MS treatment plan.
Many of the stressful situations we experience cannot be immediately changed (you probably can’t tell your in-laws that you’re done spending holidays together or your kids to take a hike until they are 25). If you can’t remove a specific stressor in your life then the next best thing is to change your relationship to it, and meditation is one way to accomplish this.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a mental exercise. It’s common for people to think that meditation is about “clearing your mind” or creating a “blank mental slate”, but this isn’t accurate. Meditation is actually a process of getting to know your mind. There are many different types of meditation. Some forms encourage participants to focus their attention on the breath, other forms suggest participants focus on a word or phrase that is repeated over and over, and still other types of meditation teach that the focus should be on one’s internal experience: thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
While specific techniques may vary from one type to another, all meditative practices help cultivate self-observation, awareness, concentration, emotional regulation, and an attitude of acceptance. By practicing meditation, you can learn the patterns and habits of your mind, and then find new ways of approaching stressful life events that can lead to more satisfying and healthy experiences.
What can meditation do for me?
Regardless of the type of meditation, the general practice of focusing attention inward can induce changes in neural, immune, and endocrine function that lead to increased relaxation and improved physical and mental well-being. While research has yet to fully demonstrate how meditation effects change, studies have shown meditation can improve common MS symptoms, including fatigue, pain, sleep disturbance, depression, anxiety, and stress. More than just symptom management, meditation practice can empower participants by enhancing self-esteem, improving coping strategies, imparting a sense of control, and improving overall quality of life.
Meditation is a skill that must be practiced; the more you do it, the better the results. Like a muscle that needs exercise to become stronger, setting aside a few minutes each day to focus your attention will allow you to more readily access the physical and emotional benefits. Regular meditative practice will strengthen the neural connections associated with relaxation and emotional regulation, and with practice you can access these connections in your day-to-day encounters with brief “meditative moments.” Just a few focused breaths or a brief mindful reflection can create space between a stressful encounter and a habitual response, allowing your physiology (the way living things or any of their parts function) to shift and providing you more time for thoughtful action in a way that will help manage stress.
How can I get started?
The demands of daily life are unlikely to disappear, but your response to these demands can change and that will in turn have a positive effect on your physiology. Commit to caring for yourself by making your stress-management plan as high a priority as taking your medications or nutritional supplements. There are many different ways to get started: The Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has a wonderful website with many resources, including free guided meditations as well as more in-depth online courses in meditation. Headspace provides free, daily, 10-minute guided sessions that you can listen to whenever it’s convenient (they even have a free app for your smart phone!).
Consider reading “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, or listen to his audiobook series entitled “Guided Mindfulness Meditation”. Or, find a local mindfulness-based stress reduction class and join others as they learn how to focus attention inward. Interested in learning more about the science behind meditation? The books “Mindsight” and “The Mindful Brain” by Dan Siegel, MD, describe the neurobiological effects of meditative practice and how these effects improve health and wellbeing. There are many, many resources out there, so enjoy the exploratory process of finding a method that works for you and start crafting your own meditative practice today.
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