Having a Stress-Free Holiday Season When You Have MS

By: Jeri Burtchell

Each year, I judge how well prepared I am for the holidays by the way Halloween plays out. When I saw my son donning the same scary mask we bought several years ago, I realized I’m as ill-prepared as ever. We’re lucky it still fits, I think to myself as holiday dread settles squarely on my shoulders.

The problem with his costume is not that we aren’t creative, it’s just that life is busy and time slips through our fingers like greased marbles these days. We end up making last minute plans and this Halloween was no exception: get the plastic pumpkin off the top of the fridge and start searching the house for that mask (two hours before Trick-or-Treat officially kicks off). I’m not creating the perfect childhood memories for my son, I fret to myself as I look under the bed for the face from Scream.

The limitations that my MS fatigue and reduced walking ability have placed on me are showing. I’m not looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas with the same enthusiasm as I once did. I’m filled with angst as part of me wants the ultimate “joyful” experience, while the other part just wants it all to be over.

But the holiday season is stressful for everyone. The difference is some people thrive on the stress, which they call “anticipation.” But others like myself are filled with dread. Ever since I was diagnosed with MS in 1999 it seems like I stopped looking forward to the time between Halloween and New Year’s Day. I think it’s because I worry about stress triggering a relapse. And then part of me feels guilty because the children in the family aren’t getting the full “magical” experience.

While I do face physical challenges, my MS isn’t the only factor shaping our family holidays. Mom is 91, and though she’s still undeniably the sharpest knife in the drawer, she doesn’t get around as easily as she once did. Still other family members are living with everything from lactose intolerance to diabetes which influences the dinner menu.

But we are managing. Together our family is learning to adjust to our new collective “normal”. We’re redefining what our get-togethers look like. The emphasis is on comfort and ease while downplaying commercialism. So what if the tree isn’t up or we don’t have a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings? We can define the celebration on our own terms.

The holiday dinners will be potluck so that we can each focus on one dish and prepare it ahead of time. Nobody will be banished to the kitchen and make-ahead dishes can be prepared when the cook (or baker) is feeling up to it.

With dinner prepared in advance, we’ll be free to enjoy each other’s company. The conversations, the laughs, the squealing children, and the photo ops will fill our memories of the day.

If Mom has to take a nap or I have to go lay down for a while, that’s okay. Everyone knows we both have our limits.

At Thanksgiving we’ll draw names for Christmas gift giving. Everyone ends up with a present but only shops for one person instead of ten. With a $20 limit and the convenience of online shopping, we can eliminate the stress of holiday crowds. We’re trying to make it more about the get-together and less about “what-did-I-get?”

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve come to learn a lot about managing my MS. I need plenty of rest, I need to eat right, and I need to exercise. But it’s just as important to reduce the stress in my life. Not only is it bad for MS, but for everyone’s health in general. By reducing the amount of effort (and stress) it takes to pull off a family gathering, we’re really looking out for our health.

The holidays should be about family, love, togetherness, and appreciation for every positive thing in our lives.

So when next year rolls around and my son is reaching for the same old scary mask at Halloween, I’m going to go a little easier on myself. The mask can be a new tradition, a symbol of how we can let go of society’s expectations. It will signal the start of a stress-free holiday season and–with the help of my family–I know we can do this!

References:
http://www.healthline.com/video/managing-multiple-sclerosis

*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.

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Planning for a Stress-Free Holiday

With Thanksgiving a little over a week away, many families have already started planning for the holiday season. Who is hosting, who’s making the turkey, and who will be opening their home to holiday guests this season? As if the actual day wasn’t hectic enough, with the shuffling around of foods, the constant chatter, and all of the hugs and kisses; why stress this upcoming week in preparation?

The following tips may help keep this holiday season a little less stressful:

1. Make a plan: Start by listing out each of the tasks that need to be accomplished. Breaking them down into groups can help keep things organized (i.e. cleaning, shopping, cooking).

2. Ask for help: Be prepared to delegate tasks to others. Go through the list and identify tasks that can easily be accomplished by someone else. Family and friends are usually asking, “What can we do or what can we bring?” Use this opportunity to check something off that list.

3. Practice self-care: Take breaks throughout the day; do not push through to finish a check list. Find a good mix of tasks that you enjoy with ones that are less pleasurable; when it comes down to choosing one or the other, always choose the one that makes you happy.

In what ways do you plan for a stress-free holiday?

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Nutrition and Multiple Sclerosis

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As we wrap up this month focusing on reaching out to supportive professionals, there is one other group of professionals that plays an important role in the overall health of individuals with MS. One of the top questions asked in regards to MS care is around the idea of a diet for MS, or which foods to avoid for individuals with MS. Unfortunately, this is a difficult question to answer as there has been no hard science that indicates that any particular food groups are specifically beneficial or not to those with MS.

With MS being a very individualized disease, meaning that it affects each person in a different way, it is difficult to say that one thing will work for everyone.

Just as MS is a very individualized disease, understanding and creating a nutritional plan must be individualized as well. Meeting with a dietitian or a nutritionist may help to better understand the foods and nutrients that your body needs in order to work properly. By working with a professional, he or she can help to safely monitor the changes occurring in your body based on the foods that you add or withdraw, depending on your plan.

Talk to your doctor about a referral to a dietitian or nutritionist in your area. You may also wish to reach out to your insurance provider to learn about insurance coverage for these visits. Licensing and education can vary between those in the nutritional field, it is important to do some research on the professional and their background and beliefs about nutrition. Some nutritionists may have a belief in herbal supplements and other forms of natural healing while others may not. Knowing what you are comfortable with in regards to your treatment and matching that with the appropriate practitioner can aid in the overall process of crafting a healthy regimen for you.

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Remembering the MS Support People

By: Sheryl Skutelsky

I’ve personally switched MS medications 3 times over the 14 years since I was diagnosed. It was a little over a year ago that I went for monthly infusions.

I would walk into the infusion center, and no matter how hectic it seemed at times, there was Kristen always smiling. Especially in the beginning, this was a place of fear for me. My veins saw a needle coming, and they would literally slide to the side. Kristen had the patience of a saint, and the most amazing bedside manner.

Unlike so many, I wasn’t doing well on the medication. I began to experience severe joint pain, and I finally had to give up and move on to the next medication.

However, I will never forget the difference it made in my life to have a nurse like Kristen. She cared about each and every one of us, and I swear she could do 20 things at once and get them all right.

To this day whenever I visit my neurologist, and he says that I need bloodwork done, I’ll patiently wait until Kristen has a free moment – not just because she’s the only one that can find my vein on one try, but because her smile can light up anyone’s bad MS days.

*Sheryl Skutelsky, diagnosed in 2001, has learned how to live positively with multiple sclerosis. Sheryl’s passion has always been graphic design. Her symptoms have become an inconvenience to her work, so she now uses her skills and creativity to reach out to others about MS. Sheryl is a patient advocate speaker for Biogen Idec. She also writes for Healthline.com, and she is an Internet radio host with her own show, Fix MS Now. Check out her Fix MS Now page on Facebook which has more than 10,000 followers. You can help raise MS awareness one “like” at a time by visiting: http://www.facebook.com/fixmsnow.

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Stopping Mental Health Stigma

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When you have an infection, you call the doctor. When you have a toothache, you call the dentist. But why when you notice a change in your emotional wellbeing don’t you call a counselor? The mental health stigma (or the view of individuals who seek mental health counselling in a negative way) can have a strong enough effect to stop someone from picking up the phone for help. The idea that an individual is perceived in a negative manner just for the use of mental health services sometimes prevents an individual from seeking care.

In the same ways that the doctor helps cure your infection, or the dentist helps fill your cavity, a counselor or therapist can help guide you through the emotional challenge you may be experiencing. However, fear surrounding the thought of being judged or criticized holds strong enough in some individuals that they will not seek out care.

1 in 5 Americans live with a mental disorder such as depression, bipolar, or anxiety disorder according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and two-thirds of those diagnosed do not seek treatment. Fears of disclosure or discrimination are some examples of why one would not receive care. Helping to stop mental health stigma opens the doors to mental health treatment and care for those who truly need the support.

Tips for Stopping Mental Health Stigma:

1. Educate those around you about mental health.
Example: With MS, the rate of depression is three times higher than the general population.

2. Use positive language surrounding mental health illnesses
Example: Use phrases such as “a person with depression”; correct people who use inappropriate terms to describe a person.

3. Speak up if you feel you have been discriminated against based on a mental health condition!
Example: People with mental illnesses can experience discrimination in the workplace, education, housing, and healthcare.

Please share your tips or suggestions on ways to stop mental health stigma. By sharing the voices of those in need, we move closer to a world where those who need help no longer fear reaching out.

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Continued Success after Therapy

By: Matt Cavallo 

Earlier this month, I wrote a personal story of my positive outcomes with therapy. I utilized Physical and Occupational Therapy, along with Speech Language Pathology to aid in my recovery from neck surgery. This was a scary time in my life, and I was extremely thankful to have each line of therapy to help me overcome my deficits. My personal challenge became what to do once I no longer qualified for therapy visits?

The best way to relate my therapy experience is to talk about my gym membership. I have a family gym membership and make my annual gym appearance sometime in January. Then, I don’t go for the rest of the year. I offer any number of excuses to my wife and kids as I watch them drive off to the gym each Saturday.

The truth is that the only way I would utilize that gym membership would be if I had a personal trainer – someone to look over my shoulder as I exercised that I paid for. Paying for the service holds me accountable and forces me to keep my appointments. I also prefer to work out with a trained professional, who understands my limitations and can design a routine where I won’t hurt myself. The problem becomes I get on a good routine with the trainer, but as soon as I stop using a personal trainer, I stop working out.

This is my same relationship with therapy. While I am actively participating in therapy, I do great. As soon as they give me home exercises, I don’t follow through. I know that the homework given by a therapist is specifically designed to help me functionally, but I just don’t do well when left to my own devices. The problem is that my lack of follow through is detrimental to my health. My neck surgery forced me to change my behavior. Here are a couple of tips that helped me have continued success after being discharged from therapy:

Tips for Continued Success after Therapy:

1. Request clear, written discharge instructions. Your therapist will develop a plan of care that you can continue on your own after you finish all your therapy appointments. Make sure that you get a copy of those discharge instructions at your last appointment.

2. Get a copy of your Home Exercise Program (HEP). Your therapist can provide you home exercise instructions with pictures. These instructions provide a handy reminder of the therapist recommended exercises, as well as a visual reference for how to safely perform the exercise.

3. Make sure you get your questions answered. During your last appointment, make sure that you have a list of questions for your therapist. You will want to make sure that any concerns you have are addressed. There is truly no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to your health and well-being. Even if you think your question isn’t appropriate, you may have a legitimate concern that the therapist isn’t thinking of. I always have my questions written on a piece of paper and take detailed notes.

4. Follow through. Where I am lacking is in the follow through. For my neck, I still have my HEP and discharge instructions. When it tightens up, I know exactly the stretches that help and reference the pictures to make sure I am doing it right. The problem is that if I consistently followed through and strengthened and stretched my neck, then I probably would feel consistently better – just ask my wife!

Therapy is a great start for managing your MS symptoms. Continuing to follow through after you finish therapy is the key to success. Following these steps may help to ensure that you are prepared for life after therapy. Continuing your home exercise program post-discharge will put you in a better position for continued success.

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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What is an Occupational Therapist?

In the field of medicine there are many specialties that often work together to provide a comprehensive approach to patient care. For those dealing with MS, these specialties can oftentimes blend together, as the symptoms of the disease warrant concurrent methods of treatment. Trying to understand and recognize the responsibilities every specialist has in a patient’s care can be challenging, and in the rehabilitative treatment domain, the role of occupational therapy may be lesser known than other forms of therapy.

Occupational therapy (OT) focuses on treatments used to rehabilitate activities of daily living for individuals with physical, mental or developmental conditions. Working to develop and improve the skills needed to maintain day-to-day living and work habits are the goals of this therapy, with the client being at the forefront of treatment. Things like bathing, eating, dressing, job performance, driving and financial management are some of the areas of focus OT can impact with intervention. OTs work closely with the client, and many times with the family also to create an environment that’s conducive to the client’s needs; this can include the home, workplace, school, or other settings. Making changes that help modify particular tasks and teaching new skills helps clients regain control over their daily functioning and aids in maintaining their independence.

OTs help to create personalized interventions and treatment plans to help clients achieve personal goals of what they ultimately want to perform in their daily routine. Education is a major component of OT, as therapists and clients alike work together to learn what activities need modifying and how these changes can happen. The OT specialty often works in conjunction with other treatment specialists including physical, speech, and language therapists, in addition to other healthcare and social work professionals to develop an inclusive plan for client care.

If you are experiencing challenges with daily living and work activities, ask your doctor about OT to see if an evaluation is appropriate for you. Your doctor may be able to provide further information about this therapy and if it could benefit your needs. For additional information about occupational therapy, visit The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.

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Feeling SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder

rsz_young_woman_cryingIt is commonly known that MS can impact mood and can cause an increased risk for developing depression and anxiety which MSAA detailed in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of The Motivator. However, you may be unfamiliar with another condition – Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – which may be something to pay attention to as the seasons change.

SAD is a type of depression which is hallmarked by its “seasonality” generally beginning in the fall and lasting through the winter months. SAD typically tends to creep up as the daylight hours get shorter and the weather gets cooler and the impacts on mood may become more severe as the season goes on.  Like other forms of depression, individuals who experience SAD may experience low energy (fatigue), may lose enjoyment in activities they once enjoyed, may experience changes in eating or sleeping habits, may have persistent sad or depressed thoughts, and may even think of engaging in self-harm. As with other forms of depression, individuals with SAD may benefit from the use of medications and/or talk therapy to help address this issue. One major difference with teasing out SAD from other forms of depression is that individuals with SAD may also benefit from using “phototherapy” or specialized light therapy; a person may even be assigned a specific amount time in their day to sit under the specialized light or lamp to help improve their symptoms.

If you have noticed that the fall and winter seasons tend to impact your mood, or if you have noticed a lower overall mood, please discuss the issue with your treating physician…sometimes just shedding some “light” on a situation can make a world of difference.

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A Personal Story of Positive Therapy Outcomes

By: Matt Cavallo

I had one goal for after my anterior cervical fusion surgery: work as hard as I could to return to normal so I could be the dad I always wanted to be. This was not going to be easy. I had a serious neck injury with bone fragments cutting and flattening my spine with every movement. The pain I experienced was intense. Electric shocks shot up and down my body, freezing me in place whenever I tried to move. Instinctively, I held my shoulders tight together when I moved in order to take the pressure off of my spine, but it also made me look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

This was no way to live. My sons were only three and one year old, respectively at the time, and I feared that I wouldn’t be able to be the active, involved dad that I always wanted to be. In my deepest, darkest moments, I was afraid that I would become quadriplegic. Unfortunately, my doctors agreed with my fears and recommended immediate surgery. They said my neck problem was related to an earlier MS exacerbation I experienced of Transverse Myelitis and that even picking up my babies the wrong way could leave me damaged for life.

I was scared. I didn’t want surgery, but I also didn’t want the alternative. In September of 2010, I went under the knife. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was also working for a rehabilitation hospital at the time and received a lot of good advice prior to surgery. When I woke up from that surgery, I followed that advice.

First, I had an evaluation with a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP). While many people know that SLPs can work on cognitive and language deficits associated with multiple sclerosis, many don’t know that SLPs can also help with swallowing issues. My SLP coached me how to adapt my swallowing techniques while wearing a hard neck brace. These strategies helped me adapt during my recovery. My SLP also set expectations about what it would feel like to swallow with the titanium artifact in my neck. Without these compensatory strategies learned from my SLP, my recovery would have been much more uncomfortable and I probably wouldn’t have received the proper nutrition. As a side note, I did consult a Registered Dietician about liquid nutrition options before switching to regular food when I was first out of surgery.

Next, I had an Occupational Therapy (OT) evaluation. Learning to adapt with a hard collar wrapped tightly around your neck is difficult. Trying to dress or clean yourself up after going to the bathroom was impossible for me. My OT worked on activities of daily living (ADLs) including dressing and toileting. These strategies allowed me to remain independent with my ADLs post-surgery. Feeling independent with grooming, toileting and dressing helped my confidence. My wife was already having to dress and change my kids’ diapers. I didn’t want her to have to do the same to me. My wife did really step up and help me when I needed her the most, but my OT gave me the strategies to be as independent as possible during my recovery.

Finally, I had a Physical Therapy (PT) evaluation. First, my PT worked on my neck range of motion, turning from side to side, and rotating my shoulders back into place after all the atrophy associated with being hunchbacked. Then, my PT worked on strengthening my shoulders and neck to ensure that my range of motion and shoulders remained intact after therapy. My PT also gave me home exercises designed to keep the area strong and maintain the progress I made from the therapeutic interventions.

It has now been four years since surgery, and I am happy to report that I have achieved my goal. My quality of life is better now than it was prior to the surgery. I believe that I would not have experienced as much success without the help of my therapists. My PT, OT, and SLP each contributed, not only to my recovery, but also, to the strategies that I learned through therapy which I continue to use today. Most importantly, I am able to be the dad that I always wanted to be. I appreciate every day that I can go out and play with my boys.

*Matt Cavallo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. Matt is an MS blogger, author, patient advocate, and motivational speaker. Matt also has his Master’s degree in Public Health Administration. Matt is the proud father of his two sons, loving husband to his wife, Jocelyn, and best friend to his dog, Teddy. Originally from the Boston suburbs, Matt currently resides in Arizona with his family. To learn more about Matt, please visit him at : http://mattcavallo.com/blog/

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Adjusting to Change

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Change is something that continually occurs throughout life for all people and to different degrees. Change may have very mild, subtle effects, or very significant effects depending on what’s being altered. Sometimes change can be a good thing, and sometimes not. One of the most difficult concepts to accept about change is that at times you have no control over it. In our individualized society we try to live by the mantra that we control our lives and what happens to us day-by-day, but this is not always the case. Sometimes the unexpected arises and we play no part in its occurrence. An unexpected illness, a loss, or other unforeseen situations are some of the incidences that can transpire due to no control of our own. When the unexpected occurs, what can you do to help adjust and cope with this new-found circumstance, that wasn’t necessarily welcome or planned for?

  • Talk to others about the changes that have occurred. Communicating to trusted loved ones, friends or your healthcare team can help you explore ways to adjust by receiving outside perspectives.
  • Reflect on what the change has affected. By recognizing what’s different you can make your own adjustments that will work for you in your day to day.
  • Explore your support resources. If change has had emotional, physical, or social impacts for you, it’s important to know who you can reach out to for help.
  • Bring focus to things that you enjoy and that you can control in your day-to-day. Make decisions that help to ensure that changes are modified to fit your needs.

Change can take some getting used to, especially if it’s something unpredictable. Though some things are uncontrollable and unforeseen at times, individuals do hold influence over the way they can approach change and react to it. It’s how you make the change work for you that’s significant.

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