The idea that their is a relationship between stress and multiple sclerosis (MS) dates back a century to Jean-Martin Charcot. The idea has now been supported by modern research.
Early Research on Emotions and Stress and the Risk of MS
French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, in 1868, gave the first full clinical description on the idea that psychological stress increases the risk of MS. He made the connection between long continued grief and emotions such as worry, frustration and anger with the onset of symptoms. (Read more here)
Modern Research on Stress and Multiple Sclerosis
As early as 1958, an article ”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 (family history, early history, social and sexual adjustment) relevant in the onset, exacerbation, and relapses of the disease. Later another paper, “The Role of Psychological Process in a Somatic Disorder: Multiple Sclerosis”, also drew attention to emotional stress. Specifically it found that, “the involvement with a parent, a lack of psychological independence, an overwhelming need for love and affection, and the inability to feel or express anger” where possible factors in the natural development of the disease. This paper also found a common characteristic of those recently diagnosed of have “a the gradual realization of the inability to cope with a difficult situation that provokes feelings of inadequacy or failure”.
Stress was also directly linked to MS. In the research paper “Stress and Its Relationship to Acute Exacerbations in Multiple Sclerosis” published in the Journal of Neurological Rehabilitation, people with RR MS where four times as likely to suffer exacerbation if they where “burdened by qualitatively extreme stress, such as major relationship difficulties or financial insecurity”.
The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry published several studies, also found this relationship of “increased severe events and marked life difficulties” proceeding onset or exacerbation. Marital conflicts where also much more frequent. And in 2103, a study, “The Influence of Stress on Psychosocial factors in Multiple Sclerosis: a review” found that people with MS have more unwanted stress or traumatic events between 6 months and 2 years before onset. Additionally, it found that 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.
Research on the Psychosocial Factors behind Multiple Sclerosis
Modern research continues to support Charcot’s finding on stress and MS. Technically they call these emotions and social circumstance – psychosocial factors.
A recent study in 2009, “Relationship between Psychosocial Factors and Onset of Multiple Sclerosis” investigated the connection between onset of MS and psycho-social variables. It 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 relationships, and somatization. It also found a larger number of negative life events, family problems, and use of social support between the group with MS and the control group.
Key Component in Determining the Immune System’s Response to Stress in People with MS
Research has also demonstrated how stress effects levels of inflammation in people with MS. So it has become more and more apparent, the need to treat stress and more specifically the contributing psychosocial factors behind MS.
One key question I have not been able to find in other research is “how stressful events directly effects inflammation”. I believe it is not from the event itself but from the personal way of responding and the meaning we make of these stressful events.
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 stressors? Do people feel a total loss of control, worthlessness, feeling like the world will come to an end, or horrified at the thought of failure? Or is life’s stressors a nuisance to deal with until its over? I believe it is this attitude that the immune system responds to.
One paper, “The Role of Psychological Process in a Somatic Disorder: Multiple Sclerosis: The Emotional Setting of Illness Onset and Exacerbation” points in that direction.
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. Psychosocial therapies, such as hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming (NLP), could help transform these responses significantly, reducing the over-reaction of the immune system and improving health.
This direction is already being demonstrated in a pilot study for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) – “Efficacy of Hypnosis-based Treatment in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis: A Pilot Study”. The study has found “positive effects from hypnosis-based treatment on psychological and perceived physical well-being”.
The link between psychosocial factors and the onset and progression of disease is being established. The proof is there.
Psychological Interventions could be the Path to Symptom Reduction in Multiple Sclerosis
And those diagnosed with multiple sclerosis could benefit from any treatment that addresses these psychosocial factors directly, such as hypnotherapy and NLP. Research is directly connecting psychological interventions with symptoms improvement in MS, both psychologically and in reducing symptoms. The paper, Symptom changes in multiple sclerosis following psychological interventions: a systematic review, 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. And the systematic review “Biological Outcome Measurements for Behavioral Interventions in Multiple Sclerosis” saw the potential of effecting biology through behavioral interventions. It concludes that “psychological interventions is a strong unexplored potential.”
The Multiple Sclerosis Program Addresses the Psychosocial Factors
After doing an independent study, I also concluded that focusing on treating the deeper psychosocial factors, what I refer to as mental patterns, significantly improvement quality of life and reduced both psychological symptoms such as brain fog as well as physical symptoms such as pain, incontinence and imbalance.