What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a common problem in multiple sclerosis. Anxiety is managed by learning how to recognise and cope with anxious thoughts. Anxiety is a feeling of worry or unease. Everyone feels anxious at some point, though these feels are usually short-lived and don't affect day to day life. Anxiety becomes a problem when it starts to affect your health and your enjoyment of life.
As well as your mental wellbeing, anxiety can affect physical symptoms. For example:
What causes anxiety?
Living with MS can create feelings of loss, uncertainty and frustration which understandably may make you feel anxious. The neurological changes MS produces in the brain can also lead to feelings of anxiety and low mood.
How many people get anxiety?
In a study by the UK MS Register, between a third and two thirds of people with MS reported symptoms of anxiety.
What can I do if I have anxiety?
Managing anxiety involves learning how to recognise the feelings and finding ways to cope with them. You may find you can do this on your own or you may want to look for professional help.
Ideas that may help include:
Thinking about your concerns
Feelings of anxiety can feel overwhelming and you might feel you don't know where to start. Trying to identify the specific thoughts that are causing you worry can be helpful. You can also learn to recognise recurrent, irrational or unhelpful thoughts and practise ignoring them. You might keep a diary to record things that are worrying you. It can help to break down larger problems that seem overwhelming into smaller more manageable challenges.
Learn to live in the now
It is easy to slip into feelings of regret for the past of fear for the future, and this can undermine how you are living your life at the moment. Try to focus on what you are doing and where you are now. Mindfulness is an approach that encourages you to focus on the present and may be helpful.
Be kind to yourself
Anxiety can undermine confidence and make you think negatively about yourself and your abilities. Remind yourself of your achievements and good qualities. Try and treat yourself as you would a good friend rather than telling yourself off with harsh words when you feel worried.
Exercise is good for mood and keeping the mind and body active can reduce the time spent dwelling on negative thoughts. Exercise also produces the brain chemicals that lead to feelings of wellbeing.
Being in contact with other people can be helpful in several ways. Being aware of issues and concerns in other people's lives can give you a sense of perspective on your own anxiety. Other people may also have ideas and suggestions on how to deal with things that are worrying you. Even if people can offer no solutions, sharing a concern and talking about how it makes you feel can be helpful.
How is anxiety treated?
Sometimes you may need to look for professional help to help you cope with your anxious thoughts. A psychologist, counsellor or MS nurse can help with these problems. They can encourage you to develop self-help strategies such as relaxation exercises, discussing fears or distraction techniques.
Psychological therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and mindfulness based approaches may help to ease your anxiety. In some cases medication may also help.
Podcast: How to respond to anxiety differently
This episode of our mental health podcast series focuses on anxiety, a feeling many people with MS will be familiar with. First of all we hear from Mike, a person with MS who talks about his experience of anxiety since being diagnosed with MS, as well as during the coronavirus outbreak. We then catch up with Jo Johnson, a neuropsychologist who guides us through a few exercises you can follow along with.
- Journal of Neurological Science 2011;307(1-2):86-91. Summary Anxiety and depression in multiple sclerosis patients around diagnosis.
- Rehabilitation Psychology 2010 Aug;55(3):255-262. Full article Comorbid anxiety disorders and treatment of depression in people with multiple sclerosis.
- Multiple Sclerosis 2007;13(1):67-72. Summary Anxiety disorders and their clinical correlates in multiple sclerosis patients.
- PLoS One 2014;9(8):e104604. Full article Physical disability, anxiety and depression in people with MS: an internet-based survey via the UK MS Register.