Managing the mental health impact of MS

People with MS are more likely to experience depression and/or anxiety than people without MS, and so finding ways to understand what leads to these symptoms and how best to manage them is crucial.

Many people with chronic illnesses, including MS, experience physical and mental health issues at a higher rate than the rest of the population. Dr Lisa Grech and her colleagues from the University of Melbourne have examined what methods people with MS use to cope with and accept their diagnosis and how this affects their overall mental health.

The team, surveyed 107 Australians with MS and looked specifically at their coping strategies. The results are soon to be published in the International Journal of MS Care.

Everyone with MS deals with their diagnosis differently, and everyone experiences MS differently. But this research looking at different coping strategies has shown that some styles of coping are associated with better mental health outcomes than others.

Examples of coping strategies include, seeking social support, venting of emotions, denial, humour, substance abuse, and acceptance. In this study the team researched the participants coping styles to see how it related to their symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety.

They found that people who accepted their diagnosis, made efforts to do something about their diagnosis, used restraint (i.e. not acting to soon) and used social support to cope had lower levels of depression. People who reported that they vented their emotions and disengaged behaviourally (for example withdrawing from efforts to deal with the situation and giving up on goals) had higher levels of depression.

When it came to the severity and frequency of stress the researchers found that acceptance strategies or strategies where people accept and acknowledge that it is a stressful situation lead to better outcomes. Whereas venting of emotions were statistically associated with more frequent stress. Strategies known as mental disengagement, where people use a variety of activities to distract them from thinking about stress, actually led to more frequent stress.

Denial and venting were linked to more severe stress, with those using venting strategies three times more likely to experience more severe stress and those in denial are more than 96 times more likely to experience more severe stress.

The researchers also identified that people who used a growth mindset, i.e. actively trying to see things in a more positive light, experienced less anxiety.

This research indicates that the coping strategies used by people with MS are closely linked to their mental health. It suggests that developing interventions that health professionals can use to assist people with MS to modify their coping strategies may prove beneficial for mental health outcomes and quality of life. For example interventions aimed at enhancing disease acceptance and behavioural strategies targeting personal growth could improve mood and anxiety, and reduce stress.

It is important that if you are, or think you might be experiencing some of these symptoms that you seek professional help, as there are interventions that can help. Focussing on managing the physical side of MS is important, but equally important is recognising and treating the great impact it has mental health as well.


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Managing the mental health impact of MS