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9 Ways to Overcome MS Burnout
Keeping up with the daily demands of MS can lead to tiredness, frustration, and burnout. Here are tips to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
By Sarah Hutter
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It isn’t easy managing a disease like multiple sclerosis. The day-to-day physical and emotional demands of controlling MS symptoms like fatigue, visiting doctors and other healthcare professionals for therapy, tests, and treatments, while trying to do the normal daily activities of work and family, can leave patients feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and burned out.
Burnout is an emotional condition marked by tiredness, frustration, and hopelessness – all resulting from prolonged stress. “Patients may be concerned about how unpredictable the disease is, what the future might bring, and how to manage all the things on their plate when they’re not feeling so well,” says Rosalind Kalb, PhD, clinical psychologist and vice president of clinical care at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “One can feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it, and not know which problem to try to solve first.”
How Setting Manageable Goals Can Help
Denise Belle of Knightdale, North Carolina, knows the feelings of burnout all too well. When she was diagnosed with MS 18 years ago, she was a 20-year-old college student with dreams of becoming a nurse. “I was devastated,” she says. “When you’re 20, you think you’re invincible.” After multiple relapses and trips to the hospital to try to control the spasms she was having in her hands, face, and legs, she started taking medication, began taking better care of herself, and finally faced reality. “It took me three to five years after my diagnosis to really come to grips with it and say, ‘This is my life,’” she adds.
What helped her get through it? One thing was staying in school and being able to shift her dream of becoming a nurse to becoming a public health advocate instead – a career she still feels passionate about today. Years of graduate school work helped her set manageable goals for herself and stay focused and optimistic about her future. Helping others through her public health advocacy work gave her a sense of purpose and put her own health problems in perspective.
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“I’m a type A personality, and I love a good challenge,” Belle admits. “When I was told that I might not be able to finish school because of my MS, I said ‘No way! I’ve come too far!’” Belle ended up finishing her master’s degree in three years and graduating with honors. Now she works as director of community-based outreach programs for Rural Health Group, Inc. “Set your goals high,” she advises. “What else is going to give you the strength that you’re going to need to keep putting one foot in front of the other?”
More Tips for Overcoming MS Burnout
Get your health team in place.“It’s easy to look at all your symptoms and not know which one to deal with first,” says Dr. Kalb. “That’s why comprehensive care is so important.” By working with a team of professionals – from neurologists to physical and occupational therapists – you can get help managing all aspects of your disease with the goal of slowing its course, managing whatever relapses you might have, and enhancing your function in every way possible.
Get support from family and friends.In addition to your medical team, having family, friends, and fellow patients to turn to for support is crucial. “One of the biggest components of feeling at the end of your rope is a sense that you’re there by yourself – and that nobody understands,” says Kalb. “Having a support group can help relieve that feeling.” Belle credits her mother, her boyfriend William, and her girlfriends for being there for her during her darkest times. “I can be my most vulnerable with my ‘sisters’,” she says, referring to a small group of friends she regularly leans on for support.
Rest, relax, and recreate.Be good to yourself by reducing the stress in your life as much as possible and resting when you need to. “You have to listen to your body,” says Belle. “When it’s telling you that it’s exhausted and requires rest, you have to stop and rest.” In addition to rest, Belle regularly indulges in relaxing activities like gardening with her mother, watching movies with her friends, walking her dog Jackson, reading, and chilling out with her boyfriend. She also enjoys an occasional girls’ night out.
Adopt healthy habits.Eating well and exercising regularly can help you feel more balanced. “There’s a lot of evidence that exercise can help with mood,” says Kalb. “The key is finding exercise that fits with whatever your abilities and limitations are.” Belle walks on a treadmill and lifts weight for strength training when she can. “I also meditate daily for 15 minutes,” she says, which helps her to manage stress and revitalize.
Allow yourself time to grieve.“Every time MS takes something away from you and requires you to do something differently or think about yourself and your life in a different way, you have to grieve, and that’s normal and healthy,” says Kalb. Belle admits that the hardest moments for her are the ones where her symptoms are exacerbated and she finds herself unable to do the things she loves. “I have to be pretty honest and open to the fact that not every day is going to be a good day,” she says.
Become a problem-solver.With every new challenge, it’s important to come up with strategies for overcoming them, one small step at a time. “We know that people who have problem-solving coping strategies do much better than people who react in a more emotional way,” says Kalb. “They’re less prone to depression because they have the ability to parse out the big picture into smaller bites that they can manage better.”
Tap into local resources.If you need special accommodations at work or at home, reach out to the National MS Society and other patient advocacy groups to learn what resources are available to you in your community. When Belle’s headaches and muscle pain became severe, for example, she submitted an ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) work accommodations request that allowed her to work from home when necessary.
Watch for signs of depression.“Depression is very common among MS patients – more common than with other chronic disabling illnesses,” says Kalb. How can you tell the difference between depression and burnout? “If you feel sad, miserable, and hopeless for days or weeks on end, without any let up, and if you lose interest in the things that used to give you pleasure and enjoyment, that’s depression,” says Kalb. If you think you’re depressed, talk to your doctor.
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