Stress And Cancer: Can Psychological Stress Cause or Worsen Cancer?
Stress And Cancer.
The fast-paced world we live in is a perfect driver of stress. Stress can be caused both by daily responsibilities and routine events, as well as by more unusual events, such as a trauma or illness in oneself or a close family member.
You feel it when you’re stuck in traffic or worrying about a friend’s health. While a little stress is nothing to fret about, the kind of intense worry that lingers for weeks or months may make it hard for you to stay healthy.
When people feel that they are unable to manage or control changes caused by normal life activities, they are in distress. Distress has become increasingly recognized as a factor that can reduce the quality of life of cancer patients, this due to the effect of psychological distress. [What Is Virotherapy?]
What is Psychological Stress?
Psychological stress describes what people feel when they are under mental, physical, or emotional pressure. Although it is normal to experience some psychological stress from time to time, people who experience high levels of psychological stress or who experience it repeatedly over a long period of time may develop health problems (mental and/or physical) causing everything from inflammation to cardiometabolic disease..
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In some cases, stress may play a role in cancer. But according to the National Cancer Institute, the evidence that stress can cause cancer is weak. Even so, “there’s a lot of biologic reasons to think that an association could exist.”
In those who already have certain types of cancer, stress can accelerate progression and worsen outcomes, increasing evidence suggests. But “there’s more question” about whether or not chronic stress can cause cancer in the first place.
Stress And The Body
Some people believe stress makes them perform better. But that’s rarely true, because this leads to the inevitable signs of aging: wrinkles, weak muscles, poor eyesight, and more. Research consistently shows the opposite — that stress usually causes a person to make more mistakes. Besides making you forget where you put your keys, stress also can have dramatic negative impacts on your health.
The body responds to physical, mental, or emotional pressure by releasing stress hormones (such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) that increase blood pressure, speed heart rate, and raise blood sugar levels. These changes help a person act with greater strength and speed to escape a perceived threat.
Stress can cause a number of physical symptoms and illnesses. Symptoms can come on as soon as your level of stress increases and worsen as stress continues. These symptoms usually go away once your stress level lowers. Some of the symptoms commonly caused by stress include:
- increased heart rate
- increased blood pressure
- rapid breathing
- shortness of breath
- muscle tension
- sleep trouble,
- depression, and anxiety.
And If your stress levels remain high or you experience frequent stress, your risk of getting sick increases.
During a stressful situation, the body turns on two key pathways: the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight or flight response, and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which releases a key stress hormone called cortisol. Which only “turn on, to help you get through whatever the situation was and then, usually when the stress abates, they turn back off again.”
But chronic stress and distress (extreme anxiety, sorrow or pain) continuously activate these pathways and release stress hormones, “in a way your body wasn’t really designed for.”
Past research has shown that chronic activation of both of these pathways can lead to changes in the body — including altered metabolism, increased levels of certain hormones and the shortening of telomeres, the caps at the ends of DNA that prevent damage. All of these changes could potentially influence the development and progression of cancer, according to research.
There is “growing evidence that chronic stress can affect the cancer risk and progression through immune dysregulation,” said Dr. Elisa Bandera, a professor and chief of Cancer Epidemiology and Health Outcomes at the Rutgers Cancer Institute in New Jersey. But “I don’t think you can say that there is an established link.”
Does Psychological Stress Affect People Who Have Cancer?
People who have cancer may find the physical, emotional, and social effects of the disease to be stressful. Those who attempt to manage their stress with risky behaviors such as smoking or drinking alcohol or who become more sedentary may have a poorer quality of life after cancer treatment.
In contrast, people who are able to use effective coping strategies to deal with stress, such as relaxation and stress management techniques, have been shown to have lower levels of depression, anxiety, and symptoms related to the cancer and its treatment. However, there is no evidence that successful management of psychological stress improves cancer survival.
Evidence from experimental studies does suggest that psychological stress can affect a tumor’s ability to grow and spread. For example, some studies have shown that when mice bearing human tumors were kept confined or isolated from other mice—conditions that increase stress—their tumors were more likely to grow and spread (metastasize). In one set of experiments, tumors transplanted into the mammary fat pads of mice had much higher rates of spread to the lungs and lymph nodes if the mice were chronically stressed than if the mice were not stressed. [A Blood Test Can Detect 10 Cancers Before Symptoms Develop]
Studies in mice and in human cancer cells grown in the laboratory have found that the stress hormone norepinephrine, part of the body’s fight-or-flight response system, may promote angiogenesis and metastasis. [Malignant Mesothelioma: Causes, Diagnosis, Mesothelioma Treatment & Get Medical Help]
Although there is still no strong evidence that stress directly affects cancer outcomes, some data do suggest that patients can develop a sense of helplessness or hopelessness when stress becomes overwhelming. This response is associated with higher rates of death, although the mechanism for this outcome is unclear.
Will We Ever know?
Many other studies have also found no association. Some experts think that it’s not the stress itself that’s causing the cancer, but the unhealthy behaviors that come with being stressed.
Indeed, “the general consensus seems to be that chronic stress does not cause cancer, but it can indirectly increase cancer risk,” through stress-related behaviors such as smoking or heavy drinking, said Firdaus Dhabhar, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami. [What Are Parabens?]
Other unhealthy, stress-induced behaviors, such as eating a bad diet and not exercising, also increase the risk of certain cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. However, thinks that skeptics are writing off the cancer-causing effects of stress too fast. Stress hormones can cause “other biologic effects that are involved in the development of cancer,” so “I think we do need more studies before we can say if [the link between chronic stress and risk of cancer] is a myth.”
How Can People Who Have Cancer Learn To Cope With Psychological Stress?
Emotional and social support can help patients learn to cope with psychological stress. Such support can reduce levels of depression, anxiety, and disease- and treatment-related symptoms among patients. Approaches can include the following:
- Training in relaxation, meditation, or stress management
- Counseling or talk therapy
- Cancer education sessions
- Social support in a group setting
- Medications for depression or anxiety
Can I Tell Someone About Feeling Depressed?
Yes, you can always talk to those mature enough to give you counsel on how to manage your stress level. A psychiatrist or psychologist can teach you healthy ways to manage your stress.
Strategies may include talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). These can help your brain uncover the connections between your thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
How should I Manage Stress?
1. Practice meditation or yoga
Mindfulness meditation and yoga have been proven to combat stress. These movement-based activities give your mind a break from stress. They also can improve your mood and quality of life.
Aim for at least two 20-minute periods a day of meditation or similar relaxation techniques. That time shouldn’t include stimulating activities like watching television. “Sit quietly and try to keep your mind off any concerns.
Think about visiting your favorite vacation spot or a quiet, safe place like your garden.” Mediation and yoga also can help your brain soften the links between your thoughts, your emotions and unhealthy biological changes. These practices dampen your brain and body’s reactions to stressful events.
2. Get adequate sleep
“Getting eight hours of sleep each night is a great defense against stress.” Why? A full night of sleep is essential to proper immune function. It also affects your mood, memory and ability to focus, experts say. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule, avoiding TV in bed and exercising regularly can all help you sleep more soundly.
3. Take stress seriously
It’s important to understand the negative consequences of stress, especially when it comes to your cancer risks. “Chronic stress is not something anyone in our society should take lightly.” A counselor or therapist can help you identify the sources of your stress and teach you coping strategies that can help you to better deal with stress.