Stress Linked to Harsher Parkinson’s Symptoms, but Mindfulness May Help

Marisa Wexler avatar

by Marisa Wexler |

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People with Parkinson’s disease experience more stress than those without this disease, and high stress levels associate with a worsening of symptoms, research based on a patient survey reported.

Mindfulness, a practice of maintaining a heightened state of awareness of thoughts and feelings, may help to lower stress in people with Parkinson’s, especially anxiety and depressive feelings, it also reported.

These findings were in the study “Stress and mindfulness in Parkinson’s disease – a survey in 5000 patients,” published in npj Parkinson’s Disease.

A team led by researchers in the Netherlands sent out a survey through The Michael J. Fox Foundation’s Fox Insight program. The survey asked a variety of questions about stress, Parkinson’s, and related factors.

Survey answers were returned by 5,000 patients and by 1,292 controls, mostly relatives, spouses, or friends of patients who did not have Parkinson’s. Patients’ mean age was 67.3, their average disease duration was 5.9 years, and 48.6% were women. Among controls, the mean age was 60.8 years, and 78.0% were women.

Most survey respondents (93%) were white, and most (82.6%) lived in the U.S. Of note, not all survey respondents answered every question; the researchers analyzed data that were available.

Analyses demonstrated that perceived stress was generally higher in people with Parkinson’s than in controls. This effect was also “much larger for men than for women,” the researchers wrote.

Parkinson’s patients also scored higher than controls on measurements of anxiety and depression, and lower on dispositional mindfulness (a trait that allows a person to be aware of the present moment, even during ordinary tasks). These differences were all independent of age or sex.

Among patients, higher stress scores associated with worse symptoms for all symptoms assessed (including sleeping problems, depression, involuntary movement, and slowness of movement).

The symptom most affected by stress was tremor: 81.8% of patients reported a worsening in tremor during periods of stress.

“It should be noted, however, that PD [Parkinson’s disease] patients may perceive externally observable symptoms such as tremor more easily than slowness of movement or muscle stiffness, which could (partly) explain the difference between tremor and other motor symptoms,” the researchers wrote.

Patients who reported higher stress levels were also found to be more likely to report lower scores related to quality of life, self-compassion, and dispositional mindfulness. Stressed patients were also more likely to show high scores related to rumination (continuously thinking about the same thoughts, which are often sad or dark).

In free-text portions of the survey, patients commonly stated that stress worsened their cognitive and communication difficulties, and heightened emotional symptoms like anxiety.

Physical exercise was the most commonly reported stress-reducing strategy in the survey, mentioned by 83.1% of patients. Other frequent approaches to lessen stress included religion, music, art, reading, taking anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication, and looking for social support (e.g., talking to a friend).

Over a third (38.7%) of Parkinson’s patients reported practicing mindfulness — which involves focusing on the present moment, rather than fixating on the past or worrying about the future.

Of note, patients who were mindfulness users reported significantly higher dispositional mindfulness, and also higher perceptions of stress and anxiety. The researchers noted that it is difficult to tease out cause-and-effect relationships from this data. For example, people who are more stressed might be more likely to seek out mindfulness, or mindfulness practitioners may be more in touch with feelings of stress or anxiety and so recognize them to a greater degree.

Mindfulness also was associated with less severe symptoms across all motor and nonmotor symptoms measured.

“Patients perceived a positive effect of mindfulness on their symptoms,” the researchers wrote.

“Highest effects were seen for depression and anxiety, for which, respectively, 60.2% and 64.7% noticed improvement,” they added.

About half of mindfulness users (53.2%) practiced this technique once a week or more, while over a fifth (21.5%) practiced mindfulness once a month or less. Broadly, individuals who practiced mindfulness more frequently reported a greater easing of their symptoms, but consistent benefits were seen among all mindfulness users regardless of frequency.

The researchers speculated that, even when people aren’t actively practicing mindfulness, they may incorporate it into their lives more informally, through subtle changes to lifestyle or thought patterns.

These findings “[support] the idea that mindfulness is effective in reducing PD symptoms,” the researchers wrote, though they again noted they could not determine cause-and-effect from these data. Rather, “people for whom mindfulness is most effective might consequently practice it more.”

The researchers called for further studies, particularly in larger and more diverse groups, to better understand the effects of stress on Parkinson’s patients, as well as the potential benefits of practicing mindfulness.

“The significant beneficial effects that patients experienced from self-management strategies such as mindfulness and physical exercise encourages future trials into the clinical effects and underlying mechanisms of these therapies,” they concluded.

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