Life with MS

The Boiling Point

By Traci Seidman, Ph.D.

Anger, along with denial, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance are some of the natural reactions or processes involved in adjusting to a diagnosis of MS.  But living with MS requires continual adjustment, especially in the beginning, when people typically go through a series of unfamiliar symptoms. A person with MS may get angry upon diagnosis, and then over and over again, with the recurrence of symptoms and exacerbations.

Because day-to-day living with MS can be so unpredictable, it can leave you painfully aware of your feelings of lack of control over your symptoms and the course of your disease. Anger is a common and logical reaction when a person can't control what is happening to them, and for some people it's a lot more comfortable than depression.

However, many people do not realize that when they are depressed their symptoms may express themselves as anger. If you realize that you are frequently angry or resentful, or having a hard time adjusting to your MS diagnosis, you will have to ask yourself whether depression might be the cause. 

The reasons for becoming angry are varied. Many people see a diagnosis of MS as unfair and cruel, often striking while people are in the prime of their lives, with jobs, young children and responsibilities, leaving them wondering what the future holds. The uncertainty of MS is frustrating and often makes it difficult to plan ahead because you just don’t know if you’re going to be feeling well on a given day.

Worse yet might be those days when you have “invisible” symptoms and everyone says, “But you look so good!” but inside it’s drudgery to make every limb move. Or you might be suffering from horrible pain. Though these are difficult losses to cope with, the truth is most people with MS will endure some type of loss at some point. 

While anger may be an understandable reaction, it’s not necessarily productive, particularly if it’s misdirected. Watch out for patterns in your behavior to make sure that the anger isn’t spilling out into other areas of your life. It’s all too easy to take out anger and life dissatisfaction on loved ones by being cranky and irritable, or unconsciously attempting to make them as “miserable” as ourselves.

Sometimes an attitude adjustment is in order and you need to realize that things aren’t as awful as they may seem. Here are some tips to help diffuse your anger when it strikes:

Tap into loving feelings:  Focusing on the love and appreciation you feel for your family and the people who are there to support you can completely turn around your mood and dissolve your anger. It’s next to impossible to be loving and angry at the same time. You will also be doing your family a wonderful favor, because they do love and care for you, and worry about you. Your anger isolates you from them and that just serves to frighten them more; love draws them closer and reduces their fears and probably yours, too!

Take control:  Another thing you can do is to be active with your disease. True, there are many factors that you cannot control, but there are disease-modifying medications on the market, new ones on the horizon, and dozens of medications for symptom management. You can control your diet, quit smoking, get a good night’s sleep, and find an exercise regimen that doesn’t wear you out.  You can take care of yourself every day and feel like you’re doing something.

Breathe deeply and relax: They sound very simplistic, but relaxation and breathing exercises are probably the single most effective tools a person can use to mediate and control anger.

Talk about it:  Talking to others can help diffuse some of the anger. MS Focus has support groups all over the country as well as online peer support. There are so many people who are experiencing similar feelings, and it’s good to see how others conceptualize and manage their situation.

Consider the source: Discover where your anger really comes from. Some people were angry before they were ever diagnosed and this represents a personality style; these people should try to make sure they don’t blame all the negative things in their lives on MS. Another scenario could be someone with MS who is angry but unaware of their anger and taking everything out on their family; if you’re not usually like that, it may take a little soul searching to figure out where the anger is originating from.

Get motivated:  Finally, anger may not always be all bad; sometimes it can motivate you into action and keep you from getting too complacent. In those very moments when you’re too tired to want to move or when you feel like giving up, it just might be your anger that gives you the energy to keep on moving or refuse to give in.

Traci J. Seidman, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and a state certified sex therapist. A registered yoga instructor, she also has extensive training in hypnotherapy. Dr. Seidman has been a long-standing member of the Board of Directors of the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. She utilizes a holistic approach, combining hypnosis and cognitive-behavioral therapy in treating all age groups with many different types of psychological and adjustment problems. Dr. Seidman specializes in chronic illness, chronic pain, and sexual dysfunction, as well as anxiety disorders, children and adolescents. She has MS.

(Last reviewed 10/2009)