Increasing Positive Experiences Decreases Depression Symptoms in Patients with Multiple Sclerosis, MU Professor Finds

Increasing Positive Experiences Decreases Depression Symptoms in Patients with Multiple Sclerosis, MU Professor Finds

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Depression is prevalent among people living with chronic diseases, such as multiple sclerosis (MS). Although most people with MS live normal lives, they must manage symptoms and treatments that cause increased emotional and psychological stress on a daily basis. Now, researchers from two universities have found that people with MS who increase positive experiences decrease their symptoms of depression and improve the overall quality of their lives.

As part of an ongoing NIH-funded study of people with MS, Alexa Stuifbergen, professor of nursing and associate dean of research at The University of Texas at Austin, and Lorraine Phillips, assistant professor in the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing, determined the extent to which positive experiences influenced the health of people with MS. The researchers found that a higher number of positive experiences was associated with fewer symptoms of depression, fewer functional limitations, and better quality of life in people with MS.

“Positive experiences significantly affected the participants’ perceptions of the quality of their lives and symptoms of depression, even when taking into account age, education and disease-related factors, such as mobility, vision and cognition,” Phillips said. “People with MS typically rate the quality of their lives lower than that of the general population, so it is important for people with MS and clinicians involved in their care to understand what factors may improve the quality of their lives.”

Study participants recorded the frequency of positive experiences in their lives, such as “I said ‘thank you’ and meant it,” “I said something pleasant to someone who didn’t expect it,” and “I exercised and felt good about doing it.” Phillips found that study participants who reported a higher number of positive experiences also reported having lower levels of symptoms of depression.

“By incorporating positive experiences or behaviors into their lives, people with MS may be able to limit the additional risks and costs of medical treatments for depression. Most of these positive activities are extremely simple to perform and readily available.” Phillips said. “Health care providers should encourage people with MS to participate in positive activities every day. Previous research found that people with MS benefit more from frequent smaller activities like smelling fresh flowers, talking with neighbors or writing letters, than they do from larger activities like taking a week-long vacation or buying an expensive outfit that they can only do once in awhile.”

The study, “The Influence of Positive Experiences on Depression and Quality of Life in Persons with Multiple Sclerosis,” was published in the March 2008 issue of The Journal of Holistic Nursing.

“The current study was prompted by a suggestion from one of the participants in the NIH-funded study. She helped us to develop the survey, which has 35 items that describe activities that could improve mental or physical health,” Phillips said. “That’s the beauty of this tool. These activities can be adopted by people with other chronic illnesses.”