What is Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition which can affect the brain and/or spinal cord, causing a wide range of potential symptoms, including problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance. It's a lifelong condition that can sometimes cause serious disability, although it can occasionally be mild. (NHS Choices)
MS is the most common condition of the central nervous system affecting young adults. 'Sclerosis' means scarring or hardening of tiny patches of tissue. 'Multiple' is added because this happens at more than one place in the brain and/or spinal cord. The damage to nerves seems to be due to the immune system mistakenly attacking the nerve coating which is made of a fatty protein called myelin. (MS Trust)
Although symptoms can be different from person to person, they include:
• difficulty walking
• vision problems, such as blurred vision
• problems controlling the bladder
• numbness or tingling in different parts of the body
• muscle stiffness and spasms
• problems with balance and co-ordination
• problems with thinking, learning and planning (NHS Choices)
Multiple Sclerosis and Mindfulness
Life with a long-term condition can be a lot to come to terms with and being diagnosed with MS can be an incredibly stressful experience. The NHS advises that depending on the type of MS you have, symptoms may come and go in phases, or get steadily worse over time, so self-management can be an important factor on living with the condition. Relapses often occur without warning, but are sometimes associated with a period of illness or stress. Fear and uncertainty about future health can be extremely difficult and can make living with a health condition so much worse - research has actually linked stress to increased MS activity . Furthermore, research has shown that unfortunately 50% of MS patients suffer from depression at some point in their lives. Fortunately however, through Breathworks Mindfulness' work and research we know that long-term conditions, such as MS do respond well to mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a 'whole life' approach where you learn how to work with your mental and emotional reactions to your pain and exhaustion; you learn how to bring mindfulness into daily life and pace your activities; you learn how to become more emotionally positive and re-claim your relationships and rediscover the joys and pleasures in your life again. In one piece of research a brief-community based mindfulness programme was delivered to a sample of individuals living with MS, who attended 5 lots of 2 hour mindfulness classes. Most of these individuals reported the program as being helpful and enjoyable, and despite only being a brief course, significant improvements were found in psychological distress, perceived stress, mindfulness, self-compassion and acceptance. Given that acceptance is a strong predictor of better adjustment to MS, and with self-compassion predicting greater wellbeing, the researchers concluded that even brief mindfulness training was of significant benefit to those with MS.
Another study looked at the effects of mindful movement in those with MS, an aspect of our 8-week 'Mindfulness for Health' course. Despite it being feared in the past that exercise could cause further fatigue and problematic symptoms in MS patients, it is now agreed that exercise can be beneficial for the condition as long as it activates working muscles and avoids overload. A sample of participants with MS were assigned to either a mindful movement group or a control group, and completed questionnaires before the intervention, immediately after the intervention and then again 3 months later. At both post-therapy and 3 months later, the mindful movement group showed significant improvements and less deterioration in symptoms compared with controls, for example improved balance, increased walking distance, reduced stiffness in joints and improved bladder control. Given that improvements persisted even after the training had finished, this study suggests mindfulness to be an extremely beneficial tool in symptom management.
 Spitzer & Pakenham. (2016). Evaluation of a brief community-based mindfulness intervention for people with multiple sclerosis: a pilot study.
 Mills & Allen. (2000). Mindfulness of movement as a coping strategy in multiple sclerosis: a pilot study.
Please watch and read these first-hand accounts of how mindfulness has helped Gareth Walker, from one of our partner organisations, Everyday Mindfulness. Gareth was diagnosed with MS in 2006, he found meditation and began practising mindfulness, the difference, he says in himself before and after mindfulness is like 'night and day'.
Two more accounts from Gareth can be read here:
Breathworks and the MS Trust
In 2018, Breathworks teacher and associate Ben Hoff carried out some work on behalf of the MS Trust. As part of this the MS trust recorded this excellent set of 10 interviews and 3 guided practices specifically about how mindfulness can help manage the symptoms of MS.
'I've had MS since I was 19 (now 62) and meditation, yoga and walking have kept me sane.'
'Mindfulness gives us the capacity to handle this bad stuff and go on living. It honestly feels like the nuclear bomb, whereas the other things that I have done to live with my MS are just small-arms fire.'