Help for Behavioral Changes of Multiple Sclerosis

Medically Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on January 21, 2017
4 min read

When you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you may notice some changes in your mood and behavior along with the physical symptoms of the disease. A healthy nutrition plan, regular exercise, and relaxation techniques to ease stress can help you manage the emotional storm.

For some folks with MS, finding or creating a new environment can put them on the path to emotional healing. That was the case for Matthew Smith, a 60-year-old retired San Francisco business executive who now lives in Thailand. After he was diagnosed with MS at age 40, he decided to uproot his life in order to seek out holistic healing in an entirely new place.

"If you have MS -- or any autoimmune disease -- it's critical to re-evaluate everything in your life: what are you eating, what are you thinking, and what are you doing," Smith says. "For me, the one-two punch came when I crossed the globe, integrated myself into an ancient, Eastern culture, and subsequently dialed down the stress and turned up the fun factor. That was a turning point."

You don't need a passport, though, to find ways to get a change in your life. Smith says there are plenty of places in everyone's hometown to seek out help from like-minded, positive people.

June Halper, CEO of the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers, says an important part of healing is to invite the right people into your life and keep up with positive relationships.

Halper says that finding the right experts is also a key to creating an environment that helps you manage mood changes. She suggests you get support from understanding professionals who can help you develop the right program for your needs.

M. Victoria Albina, an integrative medicine nurse practitioner and life coach in New York City, says you should be selective about who you lean on for support. "I would be as open about it as possible with safe friends and family members who are not going to necessarily offer solutions, but who will have an ear toward listening and will offer loving, open support and kindness," she says.

"When you have a major diagnosis like this, you have to set clear boundaries," Albina says. "You might have to say, 'I don't need advice based on what your cousin's sister did about her MS -- just hear me.' Or you may not want to tell certain people until you're more stable in your treatment."

Your doctor may prescribe certain types of medication to treat your MS. These might include disease-modifying therapies that try to cut the number of relapses you have and slow down the advance of the illness. They may also recommend you get physical or speech therapy.

On top of these treatments, some people try complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies to help with their MS. Some examples include mindfulness training, herbal and dietary supplements, and stress-relief techniques like yoga.

Smith made some nutrition changes. He found he felt better when he got rid of a lot of processed foods in his diet. "Generally, I will eat whatever I want, so long as it's as close to nature as intended," Smith says. "That means nothing from any fast food place, nothing from 7/11, no soda, chips, packaged snacks, etc."

There's a lot of new and exciting research around the role of gut health in MS, Albina says, "and it would be useful to take a holistic approach. Healthy gut, healthy you."

Relaxation methods and exercise are also helpful. "When you feel stressed," Albina says, "your body releases cortisol and adrenaline, which are hormones that can worsen symptoms."

To fight this, she recommends trying meditation apps. Christopher Lock, an MS specialist at Stanford Health Care, suggests mindfulness-based stress reduction workshops, which are offered at Stanford's integrative medicine clinic.

Finally, it's important to stay active -- for as long as it's safe and comfortable -- to improve your balance and coordination, as MS can affect both. "While you're symptom-free, Pilates and yoga should be part of your daily routine," Albina says.

If you pay attention to the things that are going right in your life, it can improve your emotional and physical health. A study in BMC Neurology shows that treatments that boost mood, thoughts, and behaviors are linked with improvements in fatigue, pain, and other MS symptoms, as well as overall quality of life.

Lock says it can also be helpful to focus on the progress experts are making. "I think we emphasize a positive outlook, as we now have very effective medications, and patients are doing much better in the long term," he says. "The outlook is much better these days, with 14 FDA-approved medications to effectively treat MS, and more in development."