Stress and Drama Are a Bad Mix for Parkinson’s

Both motor and nonmotor symptoms are damaged by unanticipated problems

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by Dr. C |

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It’s difficult for people, even family, to understand the serious effects of stress on someone living with Parkinson’s disease (PD).

A 2021 Nature article, “Stress and mindfulness in Parkinson’s disease — a survey in 5000 patients,”  suggests that stress has “considerable and detrimental influence on quality of life and on symptom severity.” Furthermore, patients surveyed in this study reported that stress significantly worsened both motor symptoms and nonmotor symptoms.

“Patients with Parkinson’s disease (PD) are very vulnerable to the negative effects of psychological distress,” according to another 2021 article, “Stress and Mindfulness in Parkinson’s Disease: Clinical Effects and Potentially Underlying Mechanisms,” in the journal Movement Disorders. The authors state that stress causes nonmotor symptoms, such as anxiety and depression, to be prevalent; motor symptoms, such as tremor, to worsen; and medication to be less effective.

The study also suggests that chronic stress may accelerate disease progression.

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Dealing with stress is a fundamental part of my Parkinson’s self-management toolkit. All of us (with Parkinson’s or not) try to avoid stress whenever we can. A blip in the road is manageable, if we’ve anticipated the stress. When we know that something difficult is going to be on the calendar, we can adjust our days before and after to allow time for recovery.

I visited the dentist recently. There’s no way for me to make that a nonstressful event. I knew logically there wouldn’t be any pain from a routine evaluation, but still, it’s the dentist! It was also an hourlong drive each way, which, unfortunately, fell on a “bad day.” Thus, a sum of factors exacerbated the stress.

By the end of the visit, all my motor and mind malfunctions were screaming. It took several days for all my PD symptoms to quiet down from their raging levels. But we’ve learned to manage this.

However, when stress is unanticipated, as the result of other people being inconsiderate of the illness’ issues, then it becomes a huge challenge.

A mile in my shoes

Mrs. Dr. C and I call unanticipated stress triggered by the actions of others “drama.” Stress occurs to everyone all the time. But there are major problems on my end when other people’s needless emotional intensity and thoughtlessness, caused by how they handle their own stress, spill out into our home.

Emotional, stressful situations are not quickly overcome these days. Before Parkinson’s, I could easily roll with the punches. My compassion levels were much higher then. Now, the anxiety, anger, and irritability toward the drama displayed by others has an enormous impact on my Parkinson’s life.

After enduring these situations, it takes two or three days to find my emotional balance and return to homeostasis in my motor and nonmotor symptoms. During these two or three days of recovery, I’m thrust into a “bad day,” or worse, a day with the “beast.”

My only solution is to stay away from the drama.

We’ve tried to explain this. It’s difficult to tell people that their drama causes me to have an extremely negative Parkinson’s experience. It’s more difficult to tell them and then have them ignore what I’m sharing. “But he isn’t like he used to be,” they say. No, I’m not. I have Parkinson’s disease.

The nonmotor malfunctions associated with Parkinson’s are invisible to most observers. While they might perceive something’s not right, they attribute it to something I could control if I just tried harder. I work at not affecting other people’s lives with my PD issues. But the problems still arise internally, and I’m left to manage myself (with Mrs. Dr. C’s help) through 72 hours of unnecessary drama-inflicted dysfunction.

The cost to my health is something I’m no longer willing to pay.

There’s no way around stress in our lives. But family and friends must take the time to walk in my shoes. The invisible aspects of Parkinson’s are tough on family, particularly because they can’t see those issues. Family is not present in our lives every day.

At home, I can use the refrigerator magnet system to communicate to Mrs. Dr. C how I’m doing. She’s well-tuned now to the physical signs that make the invisible visible. Family members who visit only occasionally don’t benefit from this intimate knowledge of how I live with Parkinson’s. They arrive with their own agendas, their own preconceptions of who we are, and baggage.

It would be enlightening if they could see what I experience with this disease. For now, I’m just asking for them to leave drama at their doorstep and not ours.

Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.


Mary haan avatar

Mary haan

I really appreciate the comments that you have made here and would like to support and validate what you have said.

The effects of stress on Parkinson’s symptoms is truly amazing to me and among people who have some level of sophistication about how to deal with them. Some of my colleagues have expected that treatment is used for controlling some PD risk factors should work against PD symptoms, but they often don’t. Anyway thanks again for what you were doing and talking about.mnh

Anna Wilson avatar

Anna Wilson

This is so true about the horrors of Parkinson's. I have watched my husband's progress be slowed by family drama and stress. Takes days for him to recover but he never fully recovers from the stress an insensitive family member has caused. Then just when it has passed it happens again and an email arrives full of drama and disrespect. The new phone number is non published so at least they cannot call him with spiteful hateful words. The effect it has on him is very damaging to his well being and I am at a loss to stop it completely. I can only redirect the conversation to happy times and memories to give him a sense of well being. Caregivers have to be aware of this too. It causes stress for them too as well as stress to their loved ones who have the disease. Parkinson's is a relentlessly progressive disease and and the horror of a mental and emotional assault has severe consequences!

Dr. C. avatar

Dr. C.

Seasons greetings, Anna ~ You have pulled out the main points of the column perfectly. We had some hesitancy writing about this subject but we have a tendency to face Parkinson's head-on and thus develop strategies to mitigate the worst. However, as you point out, others outside the Parkinson's sphere can be unaware of their inadvertent ripple effects of negative behavior. One of our main strategies is to focus on our writing and our personal quality of life. We try to not let anything get in the way of either one of those.
Thanks for your comment -- well said!
Dr. C.

Richard Odessey avatar

Richard Odessey

I sympathize with Dr. C and I am also blessed with a caring family.. It would be nice with everyone left " their drama doorstep and not ours". I am one of the oldest in our family and some time ago that while I could not control what other people do, I can control how I react to it. and as the "elder" I can use my experience to help them. whether it be just a calming voice or just plain listening to them. And the interesting thing is that by doing so, I become more relaxed and serene . Sometimes sometimes this actually helps others and sometimes not. But I can always be a loving and caring influence an this has a wonderful effect on me and the people around me. Try it . All you need is a caring heart

Bill Taber avatar

Bill Taber

This was really helpful. As a retired minister who is used to taking others' stress under my belt, I now have to find ways to care for myself. My loving partner is a great help.

Dr. C. avatar

Dr. C.

Hi Bill ~ As a retired professional caregiver, I can empathize with your long-standing pattern of taking on the suffering of others as part of the helping process. Now with PD, as you said, I have to take more time for my own well-being. Thanks for reading the columns and hope you enjoy internal peace in the year ahead.
Dr. C.

Elizabeth Lucantonio avatar

Elizabeth Lucantonio

My husband had PD and was doing fairly well until we had to fly to Florida to help his elderly sister with dementia into a memory unit. Needless to say, it was a horrible experience and by the third day, my sweetheart couldn't walk - the stress of that visit was incredible. All his symptoms were exacerbated, and he never recovered to his previous level. He deteriorated rapidly, and within 6 months was completely bedridden, and died 6 months later. I am convinced the stress of that trip led to his rapid decline and death. I am forwarding your article about the deleterious effects of stress to several friends with PD. Thank you


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