By Stacie Prada
Each time a symptom worsens, it can trigger fear, grief, and depression: fear for the unknown future, grief for losing some physical or cognitive ability, and depression for the sadness of the whole life with multiple sclerosis experience.
Lately, spasticity in my arms and legs is increasing. Spasticity results when the central nervous system sends messages to parts of the body involuntarily causing them to tense. It’s causing me physical pain and affecting my coordination. I’ve tackled spasticity head on by talking to my neurologist, starting medication, stretching, exercising, and getting referrals for physical and massage therapies. It’s a bit overwhelming since I have enough in my life consuming my time already. But beyond this common MS symptom is the emotional distress triggered when I think about what will likely come as my disease progresses. My mood is flirting with depression, and that worries me.
It helps me to know that our moods will always ebb and flow between the highs of joy and lows of depression. It’s impossible to experience life joys and hardships without a changing mood. For me the goal is not to avoid sadness, it’s to recognize when I’m headed for depression and use those low feelings to motivate me. I hope to redirect my behavior and thoughts to something personally productive.
Being diligent about watching for potential depression, validating feelings, taking action, and assessing the experience after each episode helps me deal with the cycles of adjustment and depression that come with having a chronic and progressively debilitating illness.
Be diligent about watching for potential depression. The goal is to anticipate when I might be susceptible and recognize the subtle signs before it’s more difficult to course correct. Some ways I’ll recognize I’m at risk for depression are the following:
- If something in my life is causing increased stress or symptoms are worsening, I’ll ask myself how I feel about it. Does it feel manageable? Does it scare me? I need to pay close attention to how I’m dealing with stressful situations and be on the lookout for depression.
- Friends and neighbors check in on me when my routine is unusual, and I try to be someone who checks in on others. It’s critical to let them know I appreciate it when they check in, otherwise they may feel discouraged from doing so.
- I try to notice if I’m declining activities I enjoy because they seem like too much effort. Given that fatigue can contribute to this, it’s good to be honest about the reason for the decision. We don’t do ourselves any favors with self-deception. We just delay helping ourselves out of a difficult situation and potentially increase our suffering.
- Trust and encourage people close to me to let me know if they think something is off with me.
Validate feelings. Remember our physical and emotional health are inextricably entwined. Recognize that it’s normal to feel depressed when our health is declining. It’s not a character flaw or personal failing to experience feelings of depression. Give yourself credit for doing as well as you’re doing. Consider that you have a lot of skills that keep you living well with your condition and that needing more help is reasonable and going to happen periodically. Remind yourself that you don’t have to feel terrible and these feelings don’t need to last forever. There are actions we can take that can help.
Take action. I’ve found that if I can take just one little step to offset my low mood, it can put me on a path toward feeling optimistic and empowered again. Intentionally make the first step small. Success is what’s needed at this point to encourage taking the next small step that will hopefully lead to more.
- Do things that naturally help your body release mood-boosting endorphins. Use the mind-body connection to your advantage by listening to music you love, dancing, stretching, and moving your body. Triggering your body to release endorphins won’t solve your problems, but it will make you feel better temporarily and sometimes that’s the best we can do in that moment.
- Power through: Pushing yourself to ignore feelings of depression can help in a moment, but recognizing depression and addressing it directly is necessary for long-term wellness.
- Pursue connection: Talk to someone. Your neurologist, counselor, confidants, and online groups closed to people with MS can be a good sounding board. They can help validate your experience and help you find your way through these feelings.
- Contribute: Whether it’s through work, volunteering, mentoring, or even casual encounters throughout the day, find ways to contribute to society. Knowing that your value is more than your physical abilities is crucial for adapting each time your body deteriorates. Having purpose and giving to others helps develop this sense of self-worth. There are ways to accommodate disability to continue being able to contribute even if it looks different as our disease progresses.
- Seek personal growth: Learn something new, create something, or seek opportunities to see things differently than you have in the past. A change in perspective can neutralize feelings of depression dramatically.
- Consider supplements and medications: Talk to your doctor about treatments available to you. They can be used temporarily to offset depression that has surpassed the point of being able to tackle without medication. Medication may also be helpful for ongoing maintenance if needed long-term.
Assess the experience. Think about what triggered feelings of depression and what helped you to feel good again so that you might be more prepared for next time. Think of it as weaving a personal safety net that includes your posse of friends, family, and health care providers along with lessons you’ve learned from past challenges. Remembering your previous successes will help you be your own inspiration when you need guidance in the future.
The time between when I start exhibiting tendencies toward depression and when I recognize it may not be as fast as I’d like, but with practice and self-awareness I keep getting faster. Improving my response time reduces periods of distress and helps me build confidence in my ability to face my future with MS. I’m still in the midst of applying these lessons to my current situation, but I think I’ve reached a turning point. I have faith in my safety net, and I know that I’ll adapt. I also believe that thriving in life doesn’t depend on life being easy; instead I think facing challenges head on with grace is what thriving looks like.
*Stacie Prada was diagnosed with RRMS in 2008 at the age of 38. Her blog, “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” is a compilation of inspiration, exploration, and practical tips for living with Multiple Sclerosis while living a full, productive, and healthy life with a positive perspective. It includes musings on things that help her adapt, cope and rejoice in this adventure on earth. Please visit her at http://stacieprada.blogspot.com/