The Benefits of Cognitive Therapy for MS

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 12, 2022
3 min read

Medications help with the physical symptoms of MS. But most people have some mental or emotional symptoms, too. Cognitive behavioral therapy -- also known as “talk therapy” or CBT -- could help ease your mental and emotional roadblocks.

Along with your medicine, talk therapy might help with physical symptoms, too.

Talk therapy happens in one-on-one sessions with a psychologist, social worker, or other professional therapist. It can help you change unhelpful thinking and behavior that can make your situation worse. Therapists show you ways to handle your circumstances so you can feel better.

Your therapist might help you replace unhelpful or incorrect thoughts with better ones. Therapy can teach you to use problem-solving to handle tough situations. CBT might also equip you to face your fears and anxieties.

It can also help people manage life with MS and health conditions that come alone with it, like:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sexual problems
  • Numerous other mental or emotional problems

In some cases, it can be just as helpful as, or more helpful than, psychiatric medications for these conditions.

Sessions are typically an hour or less per week and may last from 6 to 12 weeks. Depending on your situation, they could last longer.

Talk therapy isn’t about learning to think positively about your MS. Instead, it can help you recognize unsound and unhelpful thoughts and stop them before they start a vicious cycle that can make your MS symptoms worse.

For example, if you worry that your speech difficulties make people think you’re drunk, you may avoid going out with friends and family. That can lead to social isolation, loneliness, and possibly depression.

Depression on its own is an illness that affects up to half of people with MS. It can weaken your immune system or make you less likely to care of yourself. Either of these can make your MS worse.

CBT can help ease depression in people with MS.

Anxiety is another common MS symptom that CBT can help you manage. You might worry about the uncertainty of your disease. Or feel anxious about giving yourself shots.

There aren’t many studies on the benefits of CBT for anxiety in people with MS. But quite a few show it helps with various types of anxiety in people without the disease. Others show talk therapy can help people face their fears about giving themselves shots.

Fatigue is one of the most common MS symptoms, and possibly the most disabling one. Talk therapy can help you feel less tired. You may find ways to live a full life in spite of your fatigue. Rather than avoid things that can tire you out, you’ll learn how to break activities up into more manageable parts.

You might also pick up tips to help you get the best sleep possible. Therapists can show you how to get help with tasks that tire you out. They can also help you change your thoughts about fatigue. It doesn’t have to prevent you from doing things you want to do, and it isn’t a signal that your MS is getting worse.

Trouble thinking clearly, which is common in people with MS, can lead to things like angry outbursts, dangerous risk-taking, and talking too much about yourself. A small study showed that CBT helped ease these things, especially talking too much.

Lack of sexual arousal is common in people with MS. In one small study, researchers gave counseling to people who have both MS and poor sexual function, and adjusted the dose on medications that might interfere with their sex drive. Couples who got this treatment reported better communication, marital happiness, and sexual satisfaction.

Loss of sexual intimacy can take a toll on self-esteem and lead to anxiety and depression. Therapy can address these issues, too.

Some studies suggest CBT could help slow MS progression or make it less severe. This could be because treating anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem make you more likely to take your medications and stick to your treatment plan.

Mental and emotional well-being can have a positive effect on your immune system and your overall physical health, as well.