I can’t stress this enough: Stress is the enemy

I’ll never forget the day I knew something was wrong with me.

I was sitting in a business meeting at which big decisions were being made. But I desperately wanted it to be over so I could get home and finish the cleaning, packing, getting the dog to the kennel, and the other three zillion items on my to-do list before leaving for a vacation with my husband and two young children the next morning.

As I glared at the clock and pretended to listen to the proceedings, the right side of my face went numb.

More precisely, it felt as though Elmer’s Glue had been left to dry on my cheek, causing the skin to pull and stretch in an uncomfortable way. And my right eyelid felt heavy and stupid.

I glanced around at the people sitting nearby, wondering whether they noticed my looking different. Apparently not. The meeting proceeded and finally ended. I drove home, worried and wondering what was up.

The numbness and dried-glue sensation subsided, and I was able to enjoy my vacation. In fact, months passed before the other shoe dropped. On another stressful afternoon, my left fingertips began to tingle. That’s when I began the series of medical appointments that ultimately led to my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.

Since then, I’ve noted a strong connection between my stress level and my symptoms. During particularly stressful times, my legs become leaden. When that happens, I now understand that it’s time to slow down and regain control over my life – and my MS.

Stress is a widespread phenomenon in the United States, and, according to a survey released this month by the American Psychological Association, one that appears to be getting worse all the time. Among the survey’s findings: “Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of respondents say that their stress level has increased or stayed the same over the past five years and 80 percent say their stress level has increased or stayed the same in the past year. Only 20 percent said their stress level has decreased in the past year.”

On top of all that, only 37 percent of respondents said they were doing an excellent or very good job of managing stress. 

Like many of you, I am constantly juggling work and family and pets and all manner of other responsibilities, and simply committing to slowing down to reduce my stress doesn’t make it happen.

So how do I manage my stress? Number one on my list of stress-management techniques is physical exercise. I am fortunate in being able to take advantage of a gym, where I run on the treadmill, ride the stationary bikes, and do whatever one does on an elliptical trainer.

I also do yoga. Lots and lots of yoga. It’s calming to my body and soul, and I depend on it to deliver a feeling of calm and contentment no matter what’s going on in my life. I also gain strength and support from the friendships I’ve developed with the people I practice yoga with. Just the practice of monitoring my breathing, remembering to inhale and exhale with intention, helps me relax.

But perhaps the activity that delivers the biggest stress-reducing bang for the buck is my near-daily dog walk. Every weekday, and often on weekends, my two dear girlfriends and I take our three brown dogs for a long walk. It’s good for the dogs – and even better for us. We gab and chat and complain and compare notes about our lives, our kids, books we’re reading and TV shows we love (and some we hate). And every single time we walk, I come home feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and relaxed.

As a bonus, the long walk tires my puppy out, so when we get home he takes a nice nap, and I can get my work done. It’s a win-win situation – and a sure-fire stress beater.

Not everyone has the luxury of a flexible schedule; I’m so lucky to be able to work at home and (mostly) design my own days. But I hope every one of you is able to carve out a few minutes to just breathe and be, to do some small thing that helps you find a bit of peace in the midst of your busy day. 

For more about stress management, visit nationalMSsociety.org/stress. 

Jennifer LaRue Huget, Blogger

Jennifer LaRue Huget was diagnosed with MS in 2001. A freelance writer and children's book author, she lives in Connecticut with her husband, two teenage kids, and two brown dogs. Her website is www.jenniferlaruehuget.com.