By Pat Kennedy, RN, CNP, MSCN
Nurse Educator, Can Do Multiple Sclerosis

The Impact of an MS Diagnosis

Photo of two women talking

When we consider the impact that the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis has on an individual, one only needs to ask, “When were you diagnosed?” Most people remember the date, the time, the doctor, and what was happening in their life at that moment. The experience was life-changing not only for the individual, but also for his or her family, friends, and the future.

The day before the diagnosis was most likely a “normal” day. The day of the diagnosis was probably a shocker. On the day after, everything changed. For the person with the new diagnosis, there is a shift in how the world, the future, and his or her self are viewed. There clearly is a difference in perception of self esteem and self image, although others may not perceive this.

Living life is something like balancing on a teeter totter. There are ups and downs. The person on the other end may alter how high you go or how fast you come down, but typically you are able to keep it balanced in the middle. Being diagnosed with MS suddenly puts a huge weight on one end, and lifts the person on the other end up in the air – feeling out of control and helpless. Things can be done to lighten the heavy end and restore balance. Part of lightening the load is to work on self image and self esteem.

The Importance of Positive Thinking

People with chronic diseases such as MS may view themselves as changing negatively, and may find it difficult to engage in positive thinking. Pulling on previous experiences to repair their self image can be challenging. Without that positive framework, self esteem and self image become defined by the illness, and as a result, one’s overall self concept is altered.

Richard M. Cohen is an accomplished correspondent, author, speaker, father, and husband, who was diagnosed with MS more than 30 years ago. In an article in The Magazine published by AARP in October of 2011, he speaks of his need to tend to his positive self image. He explains his need to hang on to all he has accomplished and not to let his worst fears define him. Mr. Cohen admits that his friends and acquaintances reassure him that when they look at him, they see his strengths, but when he looks in the mirror, he sees a man with MS. He goes on to say that perhaps he should lift his eyes and see what a good life he has.

People living with MS struggle with the following issues:

  • Increased self concern in thinking about what was in the past and what abilities have been lost
  • Increased sense of dependence, which can lead to strained relationships
  • Increased personal attention to illness, which tends to decrease social interactions
  • Increased belief that society emphasizes what we do and discounts us if we don’t or can’t accomplish certain goals. We then respond by not participating more fully and losing some of the skills that may promote a more meaningful life.

Resilience and Bouncing Back

Reducing the impact of MS on how a person feels, and then moving forward in a positive way, is possible. One strategy is to become more resilient. Resiliency is the ability to take life’s punches in stride. Bad things still happen, but function can continue. Prior to dealing with the diagnosis of MS, most have had to deal with other significant issues in their lives. As a result, coping skills were developed. These same coping skills, as well as new ones yet to be developed, will assist in being resilient.

Some basic ideas to improve resiliency include the following:

Work on improving relationships. Changes may occur in your circle of people, but work on keeping a support system going. Surround yourself with positive people who care about you. This is a key way to improve self esteem.

Consider past successes. Remembering your accomplishments and the personal satisfaction they brought may help develop new directions, which may enable you to accomplish similar goals and replicate those good feelings.

Look ahead, even if the future looks different. Change can be positive and a legitimate sign of resiliency.

Begin to make healthy choices. If not feeling positive about oneself, individuals may also easily ignore the efforts they to need to make in order to stay healthy. This is the time to make healthy dietary choices, practice good sleeping habits, manage weight in a healthy range, and exercise. Books are written about all the values of exercise; it’s hard to be resilient without it.

Remain hopeful. Huge changes have been made in the treatment and management of MS. Individuals with MS may look ahead and feel positive! This positive attitude will help maintain self esteem and image as well as add to the resiliency bank.

If resiliency is a way to “bounce back,” learning how to be proactive is important as well. Developing and nurturing a healthy sense of self esteem and a positive self image are possible. Most people, with or without MS, are a work-in-progress. When changes in the disease or changes in function occur, these may threaten the sense of safety that you hold within yourself. Revisiting some of the following ideas may be helpful to balance those feelings of loss of control, as well as those persistent and irritating negative thoughts about self image:

  • Begin to express gratitude. Many good things occur in life, and by showing gratitude for them, it tends to attract more good events. Expressing this gratitude to others or journaling the things you are grateful for adds positives to your quality of life. Practice it daily and it will soon be a part of routine.
  • Find things that bring joy. “Stop and smell the roses” is not just an overused expression. Take time to seek out pleasurable activities, learn new skills, or spend more time on existing activities that make life happier. It’s hard to not feel good while smiling.
  • Explore spirituality. Spirituality evokes strength in dealing with the negatives that MS might present, as well as bringing those in support closer to you. People experience spirituality in many ways, so examine what you personally find to be inspirational and see if it provides strength.
  • Changes can be small. If changes occur in small amounts on a regular basis, they have a positive cumulative effect. Starting to train for a marathon usually begins with a mile or two. Training for MS and its effect on self esteem will start the same way. Tiny steps are cumulative, progressive, and eventually yield major strides.

Hopefully, over time, the load on the teeter totter will diminish. Enjoyment and quality of life with MS will improve. It’s all about learning to balance and bounce back.