Skip to navigation Skip to content

Stress and Multiple Sclerosis


In this article

If you live with multiple sclerosis, you may worry that stress impacts your health and the course of your disease. In fact, many people who live with MS believe that stress worsens their MS symptoms. We don’t have the research to prove this conclusively. But it is true that strategies and habits to reduce stress might be particularly beneficial for you.

What do we know about MS and stress?

During stressful times, we need more energy to think, solve problems and address the demands of daily life. Any difficulty, including MS symptoms, may become more challenging. Stress may also add to a feeling of overwhelming fatigue, already one of the most burdensome symptoms of MS. For these reasons, the information on this page can help you better manage stress in order to live your best life with MS.

Common MS stressors

Having any chronic illness increases stress. MS is no exception. It creates a range of stressful experiences, including:

  • Diagnostic uncertainties (before the definite MS diagnosis)
  • Loss of control (for example, unpredictable symptoms that come and go)
  • The invisibility of some MS symptoms (which might cause you to feel misunderstood)
  • The visibility of some symptoms, particularly emerging ones (to which others may react before you have had time to adjust)
  • The need to adjust and readjust to changing abilities
  • Financial stress and concerns about employment
  • The presence — or possibility — of cognitive impairment
  • The need to make decisions about disease-modifying therapies and adjusting to the treatment if it is chosen

Emotional, mental and physical signs of stress

We are all familiar with the most common physical signs of stress: headaches, stomachaches, clammy hands or sweatiness. Diagnosing an unhealthy level of stress can be more complicated for people with MS. After all, some of the common signs of stress — fatigue and muscle tightness, for example — may also be symptoms of the disease.

Stress manifests itself in a range of ways, though. In addition to these common physical symptoms, you might also experience emotional signs and changes in your thought patterns. Use the lists below to better understand your stress responses and learn to separate them from your MS symptoms.

Emotional signs of stress

  • Chronic irritability or resentment
  • Feeling down in the dumps, demoralized
  • Continual boredom
  • Excessive nervousness or anxiety
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Nightmares

Thinking-related signs of stress

  • Worrying every day
  • Distractibility
  • Expecting the worst to happen
  • Difficulty making everyday decisions

Physical signs of stress

  • Clammy hands or sweating
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Dry mouth
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Stomachaches, knots, cramps or nausea
  • Muscle spasms or tightness
  • Lump in throat
  • Faintness
  • Fatigue/weariness
  • Sleeping too much/too little
  • Short and shallow breathing

Managing stress

Whether stress is keeping you from enjoying daily life or not, it can be helpful to review your patterns and habits, and consider what new practices might be helpful. To start reducing stress:

  1. Identify the things that produce your stress. You may find that certain pressures have been part of your life for so long that you may not immediately identify them as stressors. Examples include a worsening relationship with your partner, declining job performance, an ongoing effort to hide your symptoms or financial problems related to insurance companies or benefit programs.
  2. Get help with stressors where you can. Consider hiring a marriage counselor, job coach, financial planner or patient advocate. Ask for accommodations at work. An MS Navigator can help you identify resources that can help.
  3. Strengthen your support system. Talking about a problem can help relieve stress. Find a support group or peer support.
  4. Take practical steps to alleviate stress. See “26 Stress-Reducing Strategies You Can Practice Today” for concrete steps you can take today to improve your quality of life.

Is it stress or something more serious?

If you suspect that you’re experiencing more than just stress, note that as well. Some of the symptoms of stress are remarkably similar to the symptoms of depression. The guide, “What to Expect from Mental Healthcare: A Guide for People with MS” can help you sort out what you’re feeling, decide whether or not you need help and find the support you need.

Additional resources


© 2024 The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is a tax exempt 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Its Identification Number (EIN) is 13-5661935.