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Blank faces: understanding emotions in MS

Sarah Foxton

Do you have trouble interpreting emotions – your own or those of others? Well you’re not alone.

A project we funded shed some light on the influence MS can have on emotions and to manage it.

MS can cause changes in the brain, which can affect the way a person processes emotions or deals with social situations.

This in turn could relate to changes in the way they understand and relate to other people’s emotions or control their own emotions. Based on this knowledge, Professor Louise Phillips, a psychologist from the University of Aberdeen, investigated how MS influences different aspects of emotional skills.

Knowledge gap

The causes of mood, emotional, and behavioural changes in people with MS are not well understood. Professor Philip’s study set out to explore how common some of these emotional problems are and whether they impact on quality of life.

We already know that people with MS experience high levels of depression and that MS affects brain networks that might be involved in regulating emotions.

Ultimately, the aim of this research was to understand how MS contributes to difficulties in understanding emotions. And find out if there are any good emotional coping strategies that could help people with MS.

MS, emotions and quality of life

150 people with MS took part, filling in questionnaires and attending interviews. Participants also completed computer tests which asked them to look at pictures of faces and decide what they were feeling by interpreting their expressions.

There were two main findings that resulted from this study.

  • The first was that people with MS do, on average, have more difficulty understanding emotions. Whilst this didn’t apply to everyone, those who were affected reported having a lower quality of life.
  • The second was that there is a strong relationship between difficulty in controlling anger, and having poor quality of life.

Overall there was no average difference in anger levels between people with MS and people without MS. But those with MS who did have anger issues reported having poorer quality of life, regardless of how severe their symptoms were.

What does this mean for future treatments?

At the moment, MS is managed by treatments which focus on physical difficulties. This study shows it is also important to identify and help people who have emotional difficulties.

Rehabilitation techniques already exist, which aim to improve emotion perception in people with brain injuries. One of these is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which looks at the nature of your emotions, how you deal with them and what better strategies you could use. It is available on the NHS, so you can ask to be referred to a therapist. There are also CBT programmes available online.