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MS in the time of Covid

iStock-1168227653.jpgFrankie Washington and Dawn Langdon from the Royal Holloway, University of London discuss how the pandemic has led to people leading less healthy lifestyles

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused enormous disruption to our daily lives and there have been particular challenges for people with multiple sclerosis (MS). Staying safe and well is the most important thing and following all government Covid advice must be a priority for all of us. Keeping a focus on health and wellbeing is also important, and you can do this in several ways.

1. Managing your MS

With all the stress and restrictions of the pandemic, even keeping normal life going can be hard. But continuing to manage your MS well is still important. Although it might need more energy and persistence to get appointments and medication, it is very important that you manage your MS optimally, even in these difficult circumstances. Why not enlist a friend or relative to help with the phone calls or transport? Most people want to help, they just don’t always know how or when.

2. Physical activity

Survey data indicates that about half of people with MS have stopped or reduced their physical activity during the pandemic. Physical activity is important to maintain health and wellbeing. It is a good idea to put together a weekly plan for your physical activity, while following government Covid guidelines. Resources about physical activity for people with MS, including accessible exercises, can be found on our YouTube channel which you can go to by clicking HERE, and we also run exercise classes on Facebook Live twice a week which you can join in with from home. Click HERE to go to our Facebook page, give it a ‘like’, and you’ll get all the information you need. Click on the ‘videos’ tab to access all previous sessions, too.

3. Diet

It can be hard getting shopping and cooking organised in the Covid era, but diet also has a role in optimising your health and wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, in one survey a third of people reported gaining weight during the pandemic and this is also true of people with MS. In fact, there is evidence that people with MS eat much the same things as the rest of the population. But eating healthily is probably more important for people with MS.

A small uncontrolled study reported that people with MS who followed a low glycemic load diet, with support, experienced improvements in sleep, mood, anxiety, emotional health, and pain. Advice about healthy eating and managing your weight can be found in our Diet and Supplements Choices booklet HERE but in fact good general nutrition advice is the same for people with MS as the rest of the population. The NHS has some helpful advice on weight loss at https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/start-the-nhs-weight-loss-plan/.

You might want to set up an online group, or you may already be in one, where you can meet up to prepare and eat healthy food, encouraging and supporting each other. Healthy doesn’t have to mean boring!

4. Mood

The COVID pandemic has affected the mental health and wellbeing of the general population, unsurprisingly given the restriction of activity and isolation that it has brought. It appears that this impact is more pronounced for people with MS. One study reported that compared with the general population, people with MS experienced more depressive symptoms, a worse sleep quality and perceived an increase in fatigue level, one of the most disabling symptoms of MS as you will know.

Sometimes a few simple steps can help to improve mood, and the NHS has got some good advice here https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/improve-mental-wellbeing. There are ways of coping with stress that seem to work best. These are active strategies, such as

  1. Support. Talking about a stressful event with a supportive person can be an effective way to manage stress. Seeking external support instead of self-isolating and internalising the effects of stress can greatly reduce the negative effects of a difficult situation.
  2. Relaxation. Any number of relaxing activities can help people cope with stress. Relaxing activities may include practicing meditation, sitting in nature, or listening to soft music.
  3. Problem-solving. Identify a problem that is causing you stress, and develop potential solutions for effectively managing it.
  4. Humor. Making light of a stressful situation may help people maintain perspective and prevent the situation from becoming overwhelming.
  5. Physical activity. Exercise can relieve stress. Many other types of physical activity can help people cope with stress. See above for ideas.

Why not devise a menu a coping menu of your own, to use when things get difficult. For example, talking things through with friends or relatives, taking a walk, doing an online yoga class, or tidying a cupboard.

If you feel that professional help is required, then contact your GP or MS Nurse. Many psychological therapy services are now working online, so you wouldn’t have to visit a hospital or clinic to get help.

Hopefully, you are not feeling too overwhelmed by Covid and this article has given you a few ideas to support your wellbeing. We are currently conducting a survey about living with MS in the Covid era. If you wanted to help us, you can participate via https://rhulpsychology.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_3FahObokk4tdwTX. It takes 15 minutes. 

Frankie Washington is a graduate psychologist who is training to be a clinical psychologist. Dawn Langdon is Professor of Neuropsychology at Royal Holloway, University of London.