It’s stressful to be diagnosed with cancer. It’s stressful to be treated for cancer. It’s stressful to live with cancer. And… stress is really hard on us.
There is good stress and not so good stress. Even with the not so good stress, our fight or flight nervous system, is meant to protect us. But… a prolonged level of stress is not so good for us. It has many negative physiological effects due to the activation of the muscular, autonomic and neuro-endocrine systems.
- Cause our immune systems to be suppressed and it is harder to fight off infections.
- Causes stomach and intestinal problems and can lead to nausea, diarrhea/constipation and weight gain.
- It can also cause cardiovascular problems like atherosclerosis, high blood pressure and heart attacks.
- It can lead to muscle tension leading to headaches, muscle spasms and make it harder to control pain.
- Stress can also make other health problems worse like autoimmune diseases and skin conditions.
- Prolonged levels of stress can lead to significant increase in both anxiety and depression.
Does any of this sound familiar? It probably does to sound all too familiar because many of these symptoms are present during cancer diagnosis and treatment as well as survivorship. So, what can be done?
There are many ways of decreasing the negative impact of stress. One of the first things to do is live one day at a time – sometimes one breath at a time.
What does that mean?
The front part of brain, which is amazing and makes us uniquely human, can also be a torture chamber for us. It is the thinking part of our brain that allows us to worry. Worry is thinking—and thinking can either calm and soothe us or freak us out. We can scare ourselves by thinking “What if?” or we can calm ourselves by thinking “If… then and only then.” We should stop and ask ourselves, “Is it helpful for me to think this way?” If it is not, STOP the thinking. It is a simple concept that is hard to do; practice is necessary!
Another way to deal with unhelpful thinking is to use mindfulness.
Mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment to the unfolding of time – nonjudgmentally” (JK Zinn).
One easy way to practice mindfulness is by closing your eyes and focusing on the air going in and out of your nose. Keep all your attention on the air going in and out of your nose and when your mind gets distracted with thoughts or you experience a feeling, just gently bring your awareness back to the air going in and out of your nose. The purpose is not to stop thought or feelings but to just notice them and bring your focus back to the present moment: air coming in and out of your nose. There is very strong evidence for regular practice in mindfulness really helping to calm our brains.
Other ways to manage stress include deep abdominal breathing, relaxation and imagery. These can actually counter the stress nervous system directly; you can’t be relaxed and stressed at the same time, right? Other strategies include yoga/tai chi/qigong, exercise, and laughter. It is also important to focus on positives even when things seem bleak. Turning to spiritual practices like prayer and church can be helpful for some people. Setting limits and assertive communication about what you need is also very important. Finally, do not underestimate the importance of good sleep!
Sometimes people think that they caused the cancer because of stress in their lives. There is no real evidence that stress causes cancer. However, there is plenty of evidence that management of stress can positively impact you not only physically, but emotionally as well.