We all face situations that can be demanding or harmful, or lead to fear and worry. That’s especially true if you or a loved one is undergoing cancer treatment or dealing with follow-up care.
But no matter how crazy or scary life seems to be, stress doesn’t have to be a regular part of it, according to our experts.
It’s all in how you look at it
Even though you can’t always control the stressors you encounter in life, you can control your reactions to them, according to Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor and director of our Integrative Medicine Program.
“Say you have two people who are dealing with the same thing. One person may see it as a fun challenge. But the other person may experience anxiety and worry,” he explains.
Stressed people exhibit numerous physiologic responses. For example, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and breathing becomes faster and shallower. Such responses evolved long ago to help our ancestors deal with those threats from wild animals and threatening weather, Cohen says.
Stress tends to come in waves, and most people return to a more relaxed state once a stressful situation is over. But if such events occur frequently and demands exceed a person’s coping abilities, stress can become chronic. And over time, the body struggles to recover.
“If chronic stress isn’t managed, it can literally speed up the aging process and increase the risk for heart disease, sleeping difficulties, digestive problems and even depression,” explains Anil Sood, M.D., professor, Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine. Sood conducts research on the effects of stress on cancer growth and metastasis.
“The health-damaging effects of chronic stress are well-documented in the medical literature,” he says. “Research indicates that it affects almost every biologic system.”
Chronic stress also can cause people to forgo the healthy eating and exercise habits that help prevent cancer and other diseases.
“Research shows that healthy diet, sleep and exercise habits can buffer the negative effects of stress. But chronic stress can sabotage these healthy lifestyle habits,” Cohen says.
And that’s when we tend to numb the stress by reaching for candy bars or camping out for hours in front of the TV. Or we lie wide awake all night, replaying our worries and concerns.
A stress-fighting team
While stressful situations will always be with us, especially during cancer treatment, we can build resources and develop behavioral strategies to help manage them, Cohen and Sood say.
“You can’t control the traffic, for example,” Cohen says. “But you can control how you handle it. Maybe you can leave earlier. Or you can use the times when you’re stopped at red lights or in heavy traffic to do quick meditations.”
To help learn how to relax in stressful situations, Cohen advocates adopting mind-body practices such as meditation, yoga, tai chi or qigong. Research shows such practices have a positive effect on many body systems. They improve quality of life, reverse the harmful effects of stress and create fundamental changes in how the brain works.
“Mind-body practices can help decrease chronic stress by bringing balance to the body and ultimately, to your life,” he explains.
No one size fits all
Cohen often is asked to recommend the best mind-body practice for reducing stress.
But it all depends on the person, he emphasizes. Do some research and investigation, he advises. You’ll probably want to visit a variety of classes and work with different teachers.
The key is to identify something that works for you that you’ll use on a regular basis.
“Ideally, you should practice these techniques when you’re not stressed so you can use them more easily when a stressful situation arises,” Cohen explains. “Find something that you’ll do for 30 to 60 minutes every day. And then make it a part of your life. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.”
Take a deep breath
When you’re under stress, your breathing tends to become rapid and shallow.
To help lower your stress level, Cohen advises taking 30-60 second breaks throughout the day to focus on your breath.
“Take long, slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths and extend the exhale over the inhale. Be mindful – concentrate on the sensation of air moving in and out of your body as you breathe, belly pushing out as you breathe in and dropping as you breathe out. Don’t judge your thoughts. Just focus on your breath,” he explains.
Practice this way of breathing when you’re facing a potentially stressful situation, like waiting to see your doctor.
“You can use it when you’re going to a doctor’s appointment,” Cohen says. “Get centered in the parking lot, before you even walk in the door.”
A longer version of this article was originally published in Messenger, MD Anderson’s bimonthly employee publication.