Minimize Thoughts About Modern-Day Stressors to Maximize Healing Potential While Living with Cancer
Living with stress is part of the human experience. It’s how we feel: “I’m so stressed out.” It’s an outside force: “The stress is so intense.” It’s something we do: “I’m stressing about it.”
Your body reacts to stress both physically and emotionally. You can experience stress from your external environment (a powerful tornado, loud noise from a busy street, which interferes with sleep), your internal body (infections, recovering from surgery, injury), and your thoughts (emotional and psychological stress).
Take for example, the additional perceived stress of your own cancer experience. While your illness or its side effects may be stressing your body, you also may be feeling anxious about your prognosis, how cancer may affect your work performance, and scheduling and keeping multiple weekly appointments.
A little stress can be a good thing. In fact, our hunter/gatherer brains are hard-wired to respond to it. When we perceive a challenge or threat, our brains kick into fight or flight mode, which alerts us to danger and prepares us to act quickly. The brain directs your body to flood the bloodstream with stress hormones—adrenaline and cortisol, which cause your heart to beat faster, breathing to quicken, blood pressure to rise, and muscles to become tense. This physiologic reaction prepares you to stand and fight or to escape. Once the perceived threat has passed, the body relaxes again.
Ongoing stressful thoughts can make you sick
Just as important as the body’s natural reaction to a perceived threat, is its ability to take it down a notch when the danger has cleared. When you’re constantly in overdrive without a chance to chill in between events, the stress response can be harmful and actually, make you sick. Studies show that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
Although today’s threats generally don’t include raging wild boars, our bodies still respond to stress in the same way. Our perceptions about short-term, modern-day stressors—a job interview, crossing a busy street, delivering a speech—automatically trigger our innate fight or flight response. Our bodies usually shut off the stress response once the perceived threat dissipates. We run into trouble when we remain overstressed by our perceptions about long-lived stressful situations—ongoing relationship difficulties, financial strain, job conflicts.
Evidence shows that long-term stress can contribute to a host of health problems including anxiety, cancer, depression, diabetes, heart and cardiovascular disease, gum disease, memory loss, migraines, weakened immunity, weight problems (gain or loss), and more.
The good news is there are steps you can take immediately to learn how to manage stress by working with your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Helpful techniques may include breath work, exercise, meditation, relaxation techniques, talk therapy, and thought inquiry. These techniques require time and energy, but are well worth the effort, to make the lifestyle changes necessary to travel the road of improved health.
Miller, G., Segerstrom, S. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130(4), 601-630. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601
Mohd, R. (2008). Life event, stress and illness. Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, 15(4), 9-18.
National Institutes of Mental Health. Q&A on stress for adults: How it affects your health and what you can do about it. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml