Emotional Wellbeing

Health

Mental Health

Mandy Kloppers

Can emotional stress cause cancer?

stress and cancer

While health experts are still sorting out whether stress actually causes cancer, I believe that emotional stress definitely exacerbates and encourages cancer cells to grow.

During my time as a therapist over the last 20 years I have notice a distinct pattern whereby individuals who are suffering extreme emotional distress, over a period of time, and do not have suitable outlets, tend to be more susceptible to cancer.

 

Typical examples include victims of domestic abuse. I have witnessed many victims of ongoing domestic abuse become ill with cancer. My theory is that continuous gaslighting and living in a constant state of fear causes the bodies cells to behave atypically. Chronic stress exposure disrupts the homeostatic communication between the neuroendocrine and immune systems, shifting immune signaling toward a proinflammatory state. Stress-induced chronic low-grade inflammation and a decline in immune surveillance are both implicated in cancer development and progression.

The recent news about Princess Catherine’s cancer diagnosis as well as the diagnosis of King Charles reminded me again of the connection between emotional stress and cancer.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that two members of the royal family have both been diagnosed with cancer after a few particularly tumultuous years. Added to this difficulty is the fact that the royal family are limited in the way they are able to express their emotional distress. It is not only the experience of emotional stress but also the inability to dissipate that stress that causes long term issues. Emotional stress that remains in the body is particularly toxic.

It is well known that individuals who have suffered from childhood trauma are at a higher risk of developing cancer as adults. This fact has been mentioned numerous times in research journals. There is no doubt that stress makes your body more hospitable to cancer.

According to a Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester study, there was a 70% increase in cancer deaths for patients who scored over 70%  on the concealing emotions scale. Another study for the California breast cancer research programme showed that women who voiced their anger lived an additional 3.7 years compared to those who did not, (1.8 years)

Ways to reduce stress in daily life

One of the most common ways that we stress ourselves out is by overthinking. Overthinking is wasted mental energy and all it does is increase your anxiety levels. When the brain goes into ‘what if’ thinking we can scare ourselves with all the awful possibilities that could occur. Instead of worrying and catastrophizing, try problem solving instead.

Problem solving

Ask yourself whether the thing that you are stressed about can be dealt with immediately. If it can’t, learn to let go or mentally shelve the problem until you are able to take action to alleviate the stress. If the problem can be dealt with now, don’t procrastinate and get stuck in.

Problem solving helps you to feel empowered rather than helpless. When we catastrophize we often feel helpless and this can lead to depression.

Mindfulness

A great antidote to overthinking is engaging in mindfulness. Make an effort to focus on the world around you, right here right now. When we engage our five senses we prevent our brains from overthinking. Learn not to trust every thought that you think. Your brain works overtime to try and keep you safe but in the process it will send you many false alarms. When you catch yourself being negative or worrying unnecessarily ask yourself whether focusing on all your worries is helpful. If you are not problem solving it is not helpful. Look for the evidence for and against your negative thinking, this adds reality to the picture rather than purely going on emotional reasoning.

Try to find alternatives for your negative thinking. For example, instead of worrying yourself over the possibility of being homeless, shift your thinking to something like this:

Even if I end up homeless I will make a plan as I am resilient and have been through so much already

This type of thinking emboldens you and reminds you that you are resilient and that you do have choices. Anticipatory thinking is always far worse than the actual event.

Another useful way to gain perspective is to imagine what you would say to a friend who was having the same worries. It’s unlikely that you would catastrophize and agree with them. In all likelihood you would support them and try to soothe their anxiety and you should treat yourself in the same way.

Exercise

Another approach to cope with stress is by being physically active. A report of the 2018 American College of Sports Medicine International Multidisciplinary Roundtable on Physical Activity and Cancer Prevention and Control found “sufficient” evidence to conclude that moderate-intensity physical activity during and after cancer treatment can reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms among cancer survivors . There is also evidence suggesting that physical activity is helpful in preventing depression among survivors of childhood cancer

Therapy

Treatment of significant distress, depression, and anxiety under the care of a mental health professional might include psychotherapy (talk therapy) and/or antidepressants or other medication. The choice of treatment should be personalized, ideally as a joint decision between the patient and the health care provider.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we can’t control many things in life but we can take control of our self care. Maintain healthy boundaries and respect yourself. Be intolerant of others who are toxic or who don’t respect your feelings and wishes. If you have to deal with toxic people, limit your time with them as much as possible. Eat a healthy diet, stay active and try breathing exercises or yoga to help you relax. Even a good playlist can help. Limit overthinking because this can lead to making inaccurate assumptions, catastrophizing, being overly negative or generalising and these errors in thinking lead to increased anxiety.

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10067747/#:~:text=Chronic%20stress%20exposure%20disrupts%20the,in%20cancer%20development%20and%20progression.

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/health-fitness/health-news/can-anger-and-suppressed-emotions-cause-cancer/articleshow/104348923.cms

https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/feelings/stress-fact-sheet

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