Managing stress

The lives that we live are full of challenging and demanding situations which can disrupt the internal balance of our bodies and lead to the activation of a stress response. This is a normal response of the body and up to a certain limit, is good for us too. However, when the body has to manage many stress responses over an extended period of time, it can suffer some damage. It is important to remember that there are two aspects to stress – the situations causing it and the way you respond to it. While most stressful situations might be out of your control, you can certainly manage your stress response better to ensure that the damage is minimal.

Stress Management and Cancer

When a patient is diagnosed with Cancer, his mind, body, and spirit go through a challenging time. Hence, the period is extremely stressful. Stress can also lead to the secretion of certain hormones which cause anxiety or depression. In order to combat Cancer efficiently, it is important to manage the stress levels effectively. Here is how the body responds to the stress caused by Cancer:

  • If the stressful situations are frequent or constant, then the cortisol levels in the body remains high. Further, when the stress continues for a long period of time, the high cortisol levels can cause physical damage. It can also delay the restorative repair process of the body and push it into pre-disease states.
  • Stress hormones can help the growth and spread of cancer.
  • Stress can deteriorate your health and resilience and lead to chronic diseases, mental illness, etc.
  • Chronic stress can also affect the immune system. Hence, the body is focused on dealing with stressors and can end up neglecting the task of finding and killing cancer cells.

Managing Stress

  • You can use natural substances (herbs, nutrients, etc.) to help the body to recover from stress or support the organs/tissues affected by it.
  • Mind-body approaches like meditation, imagery, etc. can help regulate your breathing and manage stress.
  • Food plays an important role in supporting a healthy stress response in the body. You can talk to your dietitian or healthcare provider and create strategies to eat well.
  • Some pharmaceutical drugs can also help fight stress (consult a doctor).
  • Less or poor quality sleep and stress is a self-reinforcing cycle. Stress can lead to inadequate/poor sleep which eventually increases the stress levels in the body.
  • Social support goes a long way in managing stress and enhance resilience.

Key Points

  • Our stress response is a physical phenomenon that can have far-reaching impacts on our bodies, including anxiety, insomnia, immune-system suppression, heart malfunctions, muscle tension and extra wear on organs.
  • A cancer diagnosis is often a stressor, as are repercussions from both cancer and treatments.
  • Managing our responses to stressful situations and stimuli is possible and can benefit health.
  • Several complementary/CAM approaches promote healthy responses to stress, including natural products, mind-body approaches, eating well, sleeping well and social support.
  • Pharmaceuticals may help manage a stress response if complementary/CAM approaches are not sufficient.
  • Some stress responses may need professional intervention.
  • Some foods and habits can exacerbate stress and can be avoided.

Can Stress Cause Cancer?

People sometimes ask, “Did stress cause my cancer?” No one has a simple answer to this question. We do not have good evidence that stress causes cancer. Those of us with years spent caring for people with cancer believe that stress can affect the cancer itself as well as a person’s experience of having cancer. We know that the chemicals released in the stress response can speed up tumor growth. These stress-response chemicals can also promote conditions such as insulin resistance, which changes the tumor microenvironment in favor of the cancer.

Chronically high levels of stress hormones can also aggravate the mental anguish that many people with cancer experience, which then increases anxiety and depression. Then the dog begins to chase its tail, so to speak, as emotional distress raises cortisol levels, and high cortisol levels increase distress. This all impairs your attention and memory, interfering with your ability to reason through problems and decisions.

In sum, although stress may not cause cancer, unmanaged stress can increase the chance of the cancer progressing as well as decrease your quality of life.

Knowing whether your cancer has been caused or exacerbated by stress might be interesting but will not help you address your stress now. Rather than try to chase an answer, LHC recommends that you focus on what you can do now and move forward.

References & More Information

  1. Credit: Beyond Conventional Care Therapies
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  20. National Cancer Institute. Psychological Stress and Cancer.

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