Money. Family. Work. Health issues. Sometimes it can seem hard to find a reason not to feel stressed.
But here’s a good reason to unwind: “Chronic stress affects almost every system in our bodies and wreaks havoc on their functioning,” says Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor and director of integrative medicine at MD Anderson. “It weakens the immune system, affects tumor development and makes it harder for your body to remain healthy.”
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 ditch healthy eating and exercise habits that help prevent cancer and other diseases.
“Some factors that cause stress can’t be controlled, but for things you can control, find ways to avoid them or balance them with stress-reducing activities,” Cohen says. “And, for stressors in your life you can’t control, you’ve got to focus on yourself and make time to do things you enjoy.”
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,” Cohen says. “Yoga’s focus on gentle movements, breathing and meditation helps relax both the mind and body.” Yoga’s benefits include improved sleep and mood.
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.
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, Cohen says. 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. It’s no wonder the American Cancer Society says exercise 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 for the long-run,” Cohen says, “but it can really help lessen tension short-term.”
5. Resist sugar cravings.
“While sugar may cheer you up and give you a big energy boost, it’s very short-lived,” Cohen says. “When the sugar rush disappears, you end up feeling worse than before. You feel drained of energy. 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.
It’s okay if these stress reduction strategies don’t appeal to you. “Different things work for different people,” Cohen says. “You can reduce stress just by doing your favorite hobby.”
The most important thing is to find what works for you and make time regularly for relaxation.
“Many people think they don’t have time to relax,” Cohen says. “But five minutes a day is often enough, and the reality is we need to make time to take those five minutes.”
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 877-632-6789.