Managing Stress, before it manages you

Stress Management aids cancer survival

Top US cancer centre MD Anderson has posted this article on its blog from Dr Lorenzo Cohen PhD about stress management and cancer. We pass it on to a wider audience, with full credit to both Dr Cohen and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas.

"Stress begins in the brain with a cascade of neuropeptides and stress hormones that flood the body. These changes dis-regulate the immune system, negatively affect intracellular functioning of all cells in our body and can directly affect gene expression. For example, chronic stress has been found to shorten telomeres (which are on the ends of our chromosomes), which are intricately involved in the process of aging.

Yes, unmanaged chronic stress will speed the aging process. And that’s not all. Chronic stress increases your risk for heart disease, sleep difficulties, digestive problems and depression. It also makes you more likely to forego healthy eating and exercise habits that help prevent cancer and other diseases.

At MD Anderson we’re often asked if stress can influence risk of cancer and progression of disease once you have cancer. While short-term or acute stress is adaptive in our lives, chronic stress can result in adverse effects on health.

Although most patients believe stress had a role in causing their cancer, the evidence doesn’t support a direct link. This may in part be because of the difficulty in conducting this kind of research, but also due to the multitude of factors that influence cancer growth. However, research has found a stronger association between chronic stress and the progression and spread of existing cancer.

Recent studies using animal models have shown that in addition to contributing to a weakened immune system, stress hormones can directly impact the tumour micro-environment and speed the progression of disease. More research is needed to further understand the biology of this effect in humans, as well as therapeutic strategies that may help combat the deleterious effects of chronic stress.

There are many ways to help reduce the stress we feel in our everyday lives. Some factors that cause stress cannot be controlled. But for the things you can control, it’s important to find ways to avoid them or balance them with stress-reducing activities. For the stressors in your life you can’t control, you have to focus on yourself, make time to do things you enjoy and engage in regular stress management.

Try these strategies for stress management:

  1. Practice yoga or seated meditation.
    Movement-based mind-body activities like yoga are very helpful forms of stress management. Yoga’s focus on gentle movements, breathing and meditation helps relax both the mind and body. Yoga’s benefits include improved sleep, mood and quality of life. Any kind of mind-body practice can also get the job done. This includes practices from the Chinese tradition, such as T’ai Chi or Qigong, or practices from Tibetan traditions that focus on meditation and quieting the mind. In fact, meditation has been found to influence gene expression. 

  2. Sign up for art or music therapy.
    People have been making music and art for thousands of years to heal -- and express -- themselves. Today, many people are working with art and music therapists to curb stress and improve self-esteem and communication. Best of all, you don’t need to be a talented artist or musician to reap the benefits.

  3. Take a hike.
    Ward off the stress of urban crowds, noise and traffic by putting on your tennis shoes and taking a hike. People who spend time walking through the forest experience far less stress and have a lower heart rate, pulse rate and blood pressure than those stuck in the city, according to a recent study. Regular physical activity is, of course, important for overall health and it also reduces stress.

  4. Get a massage.
    By stroking, kneading or stretching different muscle groups, a masseuse can relax areas that have tensed up. Plus, research shows that massage can reduce pain and anxiety. Massage won’t eliminate stress in the long run, but it can help reduce short-term tension. 

  5. Resist sugar cravings.
    While sugar may cheer you up and give you a big energy boost, it’s very short-lived. When the sugar rush disappears, you end up feeling worse than before and in many cases, people end up feeling depressed or guilty for eating unhealthy, which just feeds their stress. If you really need your sugar fix, eat a piece of fruit. The fibre will keep you from crashing after your sugar high and keep you full longer. Plus, you won’t feel guilty about making unhealthy food choices and you’ll pack on cancer-fighting nutrients, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

  6. Accept help and support from others.
    Having a network of friends, family, neighbours and others in your life to rely on can provide you support and help you to manage stress. Several studies have found that cancer patients with the most social support had better quality of life and lived longer than those with the least amount of social support.

It is OK if these stress-reduction strategies don’t appeal to you. Different things work for different people. You can reduce stress just by doing your favourite hobby. The most important thing is to find what works for you and regularly make time for relaxation.

Many people think they do not have time to manage their stress. But five minutes a day is often enough, and the reality is we need to make time to take those five minutes.

Excerpts of this post originally appeared in Focused on Health, MD Anderson’s healthy living newsletter."

Ed: I find it fascinating that it has now become standard practice in many top American cancer centres to address subjects such as Mental state, Stress and Depression. 37 per cent of American Hospitals now include the words ’treating mind, body and soul’ as part of their mission statement. They know that increasingly there is expert research to support this work. MD Anderson even has a Department of Integrated Medicine.

But in the UK we simply remain in denial. At CANCERactive we have covered research on stress as a cause of cancer several times. Yet other charities - and even the WHO in its ’Causes of Cancer’ paper prepared by leading UK cancer ’experts’ - refrain from mentioning ’mental state’ at all.

To counter this, and to provide a fuller information service for CANCERactive supporters, we are working to prepare a new section on our web site called ’How your Mental State can heal you’. Articles will start to appear shortly.

Stress Management aids cancer survival
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