The idea that psychological stress might be involved in either the causation or exacerbation of MS dates back to the time of Charcot and modern research continues to show that psychosocial factors may affect the onset and exacerbation of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Early Research on Psychological Stress and the Risk of MS
French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, in 1868, gave the first full clinical description of multiple sclerosis on the idea that psychological stress increases the risk of MS connecting long continued grief or vexation with the onset of symptoms. (Read more here)
The Role of Emotions and Stress on the Process of Multiple Sclerosis
An article written in 1958, ”The Etiologic Significance of Emotional Factors in Onset and Exacerbations of Multiple Sclerosis: A Preliminary Report”, surveyed the literature dealing with the psychological aspects of MS and found emotional stress relevant in the onset, exacerbation, and relapses of the disease. This article found striking differences in the family history, early history, social and sexual adjustment between the group with MS and the control group.
A paper in Psychosomatic Medicine Magazine, “The Role of Psychological Process in a Somatic Disorder: Multiple Sclerosis”, also draws attention to emotional stress “in the involvement with a parent, a lack of psychological independence, a overwhelming need for love and affection, and the inability to feel or express anger” as possible factors in the natural development of the disease. With a common characteristic being “a the gradual realization of the inability to cope with a difficult situation that provokes feelings of inadequacy or failure”.
Research in Colorado, published in the Journal of Neurological Rehabilitation by G. M. Fraklin “Stress and Its Relationship to Acute Exacerbations in Multiple Sclerosis” looked at 100 people with RR MS. Patients burdened by qualitatively extreme stress, such as major relationship difficulties or financial insecurity, were almost four times as likely to suffer exacerbation.
The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry published several studies, compared MS patients and a group of healthy controls and the amount of severe events and marked life difficulties proceeding onset or exacerbation of Multiple Sclerosis. It was found that these type of events were ten times more common, and marital conflicts five times more frequent, in the MS group. In 2009, the study “Relationship between Psychosocial Factors and Onset of Multiple Sclerosis” investigated the connection between onset of MS and psycho-social variables and suggested that they could serve as predictors both of onset as well as development and relapse. The study marked significant differences of negative emotions, depression, anxiety, obsession, phobia, tense, interpersonal relationship, and somatization as well as a larger number of negative life events, family problems, and use of social support between the group with MS and the control group.
Another study, “The Influence of Stress on Psychosocial factors in Multiple Sclerosis: a review” published in 2013, reviewed 44 papers on the subject of stress, especially stressful life events. This study found that people with MS have more unwanted stress or traumatic events between 6 months and 2 years before onset. Additionally, those with MS have between 2 to 3.4 times more childhood trauma than the general
population. The study recommended completing pharmacological treatment with psycho-social therapies that teach coping strategies and provide social support, to break the vicious cycle.
Key Component in Determining the Immune System’s Response to Stress in People with MS
Research has proven that people with MS have a significantly higher amount of stressful life events and more childhood trauma contributing to the inflammatory reaction of the immune system. However, one key question I have not been able to find in other research is “what determines if the immune system reacts in such a detrimental manner?” I believe it is not from the stress itself but from the personal way of responding to the stress.
It is not WHAT happens in our lives that determines if we will survive and prosper, but how we RESPOND. Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”
For me, the key is what I call mental patterns. Are people’s beliefs, behaviors, coping skills, and self-identity supportive or detrimental to life’s pressures? Do people feel a total loss of control, worthlessness, life threatened or are these stressors just a heavy nuisance to deal with until its over?
One paper written in 1970, “The Role of Psychological Process in a Somatic Disorder: Multiple Sclerosis: The Emotional Setting of Illness Onset and Exacerbation” points in that direction. This paper concludes:
There are similarities in psychological processes, characterized by difficulty in coping and feelings of helplessness, after a psychologically stressful event in people with MS.
In my view the immune system is reflecting the personal response to life’s challenges. Psycho-social interventions, such as hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming (NLP), could help transform these responses and improve health.
This direction has already begun to demonstrate promising results with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). The pilot study, “Efficacy of Hypnosis-based Treatment in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: A Pilot Study”, has found positive effects from hypnosis-based intervention on psychological and perceived physical well-being. The link between psycho-social factors and the disease is being established.
Psychological Interventions could be the Path to Symptom Reduction in Multiple Sclerosis
Not much research has connected psychological interventions with symptoms improvement. However, what little research has been done is indicating its correlation.
Symptom changes in multiple sclerosis following psychological interventions: a systematic review, the paper did a systemic review of the literature available and concluded that there is strong indication that psychological interventions could improve the quality of life of people with MS, both psychologically and in reducing symptoms. “Biological Outcome Measurements for Behavioral Interventions in Multiple Sclerosis”, also saw the potential of effecting biology through behavioral interventions.
This systematic review concludes that psychological interventions is a strong unexplored potential. Through my experience in working on the psychosocial factors of MS with hypnotherapy and neurolinguistic programming (NLP), I can attest to that.