Not All Stress is the Enemy
Most people think they’re immune to stress, but what if stress was a wake up call? The truth is, everyone is stressed. It’s part of life. Thankfully not all stress wears down the body.
“There are two different kinds of stress, and only one seems to be really bad for your health,” says Anil K. Sood, M.D., professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center.1
Short-term or acute stress, like the type you might feel before giving a speech or fighting holiday shopping crowds, tends to subside as soon as the event passes. “It’s stress that comes from situations you know you can manage or will be over at some time,” Cohen says.1
However, long-term or chronic stress is more damaging. That type of stress emerges from situations that last entire weeks or months with no sure end date. “Caring for a sick loved one or dealing with a long stint of unemployment are examples of chronic stress,” Cohen says.1
This type of stress, where it seems as if there’s no end in sight can weaken your immune system, leaving you prone to diseases like cancer. It also escalates your risk for digestive problems and depression. “Chronic stress can also help cancer grow and spread in a number of ways,” Sood says. Chronic stress also increases the production of certain growth factors that increase your blood supply. This can speed up the development of cancerous tumors, he adds.1
Different Kinds of Stress
Psychological stress occurs when you’re having a hard time coping with a situation. The anxiety, fear, or depression you feel is based on your perception to an event. Sometimes bad things happen. The power you hold is in your attitude about it. What if not getting what you want is a gift? How do you see the big picture?
Depression is a sign of living in the past and hyper-focusing on how things could’ve been. Anxiety is a sign of living in the future and wanting to control an outcome. Both sound exhausting to me, as the present moment is all we have. The past is gone and the future isn’t here yet. Breathe in the now.
Physical stress refers to physical activities and events that wreak havoc on the human body. A good example is travel. Traveling lands you in different time zones, which makes sleeping and waking tough. Physical stress also includes not getting enough sleep, spending too many hours on your feet or working long hours. If you’ve ever spent a day chasing your kids around an amusement park or stuck in an airport dealing with flight delays, you’ve experienced physical stress.2
Traumatic stress is a type of stress people don’t think much about. Yet it occurs when the body goes through a traumatic event that causes severe pain, coma, or death. If you’ve experienced third degree burns, a car accident, surgery, or worse, the Vietnam War, rape, or assault, you’ve experienced traumatic stress.2
The body responds to physical, mental, or emotional tension by releasing stress hormones (such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) that increase blood pressure, speed heart rate, and raise blood sugar levels. This response actually helps a person act with greater strength and speed to escape a perceived threat.2
Apparent links between psychological stress and cancer could arise in different ways. For example, people under stress may develop certain habits, such as smoking, overeating, or drinking more alcohol than usual, which increase a person’s risk for cancer.1
Get a Handle on Your Stress
According to psychiatrists, the human body is conditioned to deal with six weeks to three months of stress. Symptoms of stress are wanting to hide under the duvet, low mood, anxiety, insomnia, stomach aches, loss of libido, loss or increased appetite, eczema, palpitations, headaches, excessive thirst, and/or sweating through the hands or head.3
This is how humans react to stress. Cortisol levels rise, and the body tenses up, as if, to prepare for battle. That’s why when you’re stressed out, your muscles ache so badly, you’re desperate for a massage. If these physical symptoms persist for longer than the few weeks, it’s very important that you make profound changes to the way you’re coping.3
You don’t need to ly on a therapist’s couch for years, but you need to address what’s bothering you. Sometimes a few counseling sessions are all you need to gain a new perspective. Of course, stress will behave differently if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, are going through treatment, or are in remission.
Exercise (whatever that looks like for you) and getting outside of the same four walls is key. Movement alters the body’s whole chemistry. It lowers cortisol, oxygenates the blood, and adds years to your life. You’ll strut out of Spin Class, high on endorphins, with your hands on your hips, ready to take on the world. Movement is the perfect cocktail for stress. It gets you out of your head and into your body.
Being in nature dissipates stress, too. Outside air contains more oxygen. There’s something soothing about being near an ocean. Maybe, because our bodies are mostly water.
Find your spiritual path. You don’t have to go to church or see a Shaman to be spiritual. Spirituality is the belief that a higher power is guiding you to your next right move. Especially if you’re coping with cancer, faith will steer the ship towards a safe harbor in your soul.
It’s important to understand the negative consequences of stress, especially when it comes to cancer risks. “Chronic stress is not something anyone in our society should take lightly,” Cohen says.1
If you feel crankier than usual, you don’t have the energy you once had, or are sleeping poorly, these could be signs of stress, Cohen says. Take steps to fix your problem before it affects your health in serious ways.1
In a world full of stressors, sometimes the easiest thing to do is simplify your life.
Photo credit: Gabriel Matula
The University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center. How stress affects cancer risk.
National Cancer Institute. Psychological Stress and Cancer.
Online Psychology Degree. What are the Different Kinds of Stress?
Psychology Today. Stress and Cancer.