A good number of people during the global coronavirus pandemic don’t have a rosy outlook on the world.
In June of 2020, the CDC surveyed 5,412 people and found 31 percent of them reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. This is three times the number of respondents who said the same thing in 2019.
But what medical experts don’t tell you is that dealing with those emotions at heightened levels for a long period of time puts you at greater risk for cancer, and if you’ve already got cancer, it might make it worse.
Delve into the past fifty years of research on stress and you’ll find plenty of evidence on how stress profoundly affects our bodies.
Those effects show up on multiple levels, influencing everything from memory and the way your brain works to the way your body stores fat.
The major effect, though, is simply that stress wears the body down by directly affecting your first line of defense against illness, your immune system.
Stress lowers immunity
A study published in TheNew England Journal of Medicine describes the effect of exposing 392 healthy people to different respiratory viruses. After controlling for all other factors, the researchers recorded a clear relationship between immune response and underlying stress levels.
More stress leads to an increased risk of getting sick, and that goes for illnesses as simple as the common cold to more serious diseases such as cancer.
The research shows that stress also makes vaccines and medicines less effective, as it’s associated with a lowered antibody response from your immune system.
Long-term stress and disease
Stress can really cause problems when it becomes chronic, persisting for weeks, months or even years.
Chronic stress not only impacts your immune system but also affects the body’s ability to restore normal levels of cortisol, also called the “stress hormone” because it’s produced in response to stress. In fact, chronic stress can push your body to develop a “new normal” where it’s producing cortisol at high, unhealthy levels.
High levels of cortisol are linked to a weak immune system, poor memory and cognitive function, high blood sugar and weight gain, gastrointestinal problems and cardiovascular disease. What’s more, early research shows a link between high cortisol levels and severe cases of COVID-19.
“High levels of cortisol are associated with poor [COVID-19] outcomes, and drugs that block the hormone seem to improve outcomes,” says Kavita Vedhara, a professor of health psychology at the University of Nottingham, who is conducting a study on COVID-19 and stress.
Prof. Vedhara says she wouldn’t be surprised if chronic stress is found to be a big risk factor in severe COVID-19 cases. “It fits with what we know about psychological stress generally, and in particular the evidence on stress and other viral infections,” she added.
Higher stress? Higher risk of cancer
Elevated levels of cortisol from chronic stress results in higher levels of inflammatory cytokines and lower levels of white blood cells, both of which play a role in whether cancer develops in the body.
Other studies link chronic stress with shorter telomeres, which are the protective casings at the end of DNA strands that are reduced in size each time a cell divides. Many experts on aging say you want your telomeres to stay as long as possible, because they protect those DNA strands much like the plastic ends of shoelaces protect the lace from unraveling. Shorter telomeres have been linked to multiple cancers, as well as a shorter lifespan.
“Stress has a profound impact on how your body’s systems function,” says Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor of General Oncology and Behavioral Science, and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Put simply, “stress makes your body more hospitable to cancer,” Prof. Cohen says.
Safely reduces pain in cancer sufferers
A published study found that TENS reduced cancer pain in 69.7 percent of cancer patients over the course of two months. The shortcoming of this study was that it included no placebo and wasn’t a blind study.
Still, when it helps over two-thirds of cancer patients, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice.
The University of Kentucky’s Macmillan Cancer Support Center has taken notice. It’s one of the medical centers that recommend TENS to cancer patients for pain relief.
Stress can cause cancer to spread
When it comes to treating cancer, Anil K. Sood, M.D., professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at MD Anderson, says, “Chronic stress also can help cancer grow and spread in a number of ways.” As he explains, stress hormones can stop a healthy process called anoikis, which kills diseased cells in the body and prevents them from spreading.
Chronic stress, according to Dr. Sood, can also increase the production of certain factors that fuel the growth of cancerous tumors by increasing their blood supply.
Many alternative cancer doctors we’ve talked to through the years would agree. They almost always prescribe stress reduction as an integral part of their cancer treatment.
So, it makes good sense to do all we can to safely lower stress and anxiety levels in our daily lives, whether we’re trying to treat cancer or prevent it. Let’s take a look at some ways that can help.
Cultivating happiness, or at least working to restore a positive mood, can actually improve your immune system’s antibody response. For example, research shows that feeling positive and upbeat when you get a vaccine increases your body’s antibody production.
Here are some ways to lift your mood and feelings of happiness:
- Find a therapist to talk to in person or via telemedicine.
- Try mindfulness and meditation. They’ll help you regardless of what kind of stress you’re navigating, but they’ll also go a long way in protecting you from disease. Consider, for instance, a study on patients with colorectal cancer who meditated at the beginning of each chemotherapy treatment; their cortisol response was measurably improved.
- Move your body. Moderate or vigorous exercise—whatever suits your physical capabilities—can go a long way to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Do things that relax you. Read a book. Listen to music. Cook. Write in a journal. Take a walk in the woods. Find an activity that leaves you feeling relaxed and calm.
- Sleep well. Try to maintain a healthy sleep schedule. If you struggle with insomnia, address the problem right away.
- Find your spirituality. Whether or not you’re a deeply religious person who prays every day, finding a practice that engages you spiritually can allow you to find real meaning in your life. It can help you cultivate gratitude and can reduce physical, mental and emotional stress.
- Laugh more. This helps considerably, as it elevates your mood and increases levels of your feel-good hormones, including dopamine and serotonin. So turn off the news, dial up a friend to reminisce or watch some comedy on video.
- Join a virtual support group. It could be made up of other people in your profession, or, if you’re facing a particular diagnosis, you can find one with other patients dealing with a similar challenge.
Whatever you choose to do to manage your stress level, I encourage you to make stress reduction an important part of your daily health regimen. Your long-term health and longevity depend on it.
- “Cytokines in cancer pathogenesis and cancer therapy.” By Dranoff, G. Cytokines in cancer pathogenesis and cancer therapy. Nat Rev Cancer 4, 11–22 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrc1252.
- “Mindfulness practice reduces cortisol blunting during chemotherapy: A randomized controlled study of colorectal cancer patients.” David S Black, et al. Cancer. 2017 Aug 15;123(16):3088-3096. doi: 10.1002/cncr.30698. Epub 2017 Apr 7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28387949/
- “Psychological Stress and Susceptibility to the Common Cold.” By Sheldon Cohen, et al. August 29, 1991, N Engl J Med 1991; 325:606-612.
- “Stress and Anxiety for Cancer Patients During COVID-19.” By Dr. Elizabeth Comen for the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. September 2020. https://www.survivornet.com/articles/stress-and-anxiety-for-cancer-patients-during-covid-19/
- “Why researchers are worried about chronic stress and Covid-19.” By Lois Parshley for Vox, 3 September 2020. https://www.vox.com/2020/9/3/21419902/covid-19-risk-factors-chronic-stress-racism-immune-system