No Time to Manage Your Stress? Then Your Stress Will Manage You

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By: Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D. and Anil Sood, M.D., Ph.D.

Cohen_relaxmediation.jpgWe live in a world filled with stress. Everything from the pace of daily living to more difficult life situations, such as loss of a job, divorce and health issues, make it almost impossible to avoid stress.

The event itself (the stressor) is not what causes the feelings of stress, but rather our response to the stressor. This is an important distinction as we are not always in control of the stressors we encounter, but we can control how we react to them. 

The big problem is that the prolonged experience of stress affects almost every biological system in our bodies. 

It all begins in the brain with a cascade of neuropeptides and stress hormones that flood the body. These changes dysregulate 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 tumor 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 improving sleep, mood and quality of life. Any kind of mind-body practice can get the job done. This includes practices from the Chinese tradition, such as Tai 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 fiber 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, neighbors 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 favorite 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.

Related Links:

Department of Integrated Medicine at MD Anderson

J Clin Oncol. 2010 Sep 10;28(26):4094-9. Host factors and cancer progression: biobehavioral signaling pathways and interventions.

Cancer Res. 2010 Sep 15;70(18):7042-52. The sympathetic nervous system induces a metastatic switch in primary breast cancer.

J Soc Int Oncol. 2010 8(2): 43-55. Yoga improves quality of life and benefit finding in women undergoing radiotherapy for breast cancer

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