Does stress really cause cancer? It’s a question more people are asking themselves as the pandemic continues to shapeshift into unknown territory, and we adapt in unfamiliar ways.
But there are two questions here, really: First, is all stress created equal? And two, what can we do about relieving stress—or at minimum—counteracting its effects?
Today, I want to examine the link between stress and cancer, and how you can manage the evils of stress for the good of your health.
First, let’s examine the claim that living with a lot of stress puts you at greater risk for developing cancer.
There is a definitive connection between emotional health and physical health, but it’s a very complex one. Psychological stress (emotional stress) indeed does affect your body. And there are studies that have found a link between different psychological factors and a higher risk of getting cancer.1 That’s because psychological stress damages your body in three ways, by affecting your immunity, hormones, and behavior.2
Let’s take a closer look at each of these…
Stress can damage your body in three ways
Plenty of evidence shows that stress leads to a weakened immune system. If all your energy is going into the creation of cortisol (your stress hormone) and mitigating the effects of this hormone on your physical self, there’s very little energy left to put into your immune system when it comes to warding off infections and cancer cells.
So, it’s conclusive that a weakened immune system leads to the development of certain types of cancer, and particularly age-related cancers such as breast, colorectal, and lung cancer.3
Stress may also bring about cancer indirectly because of its affect on hormones. Stress hormones hinder a process in your body known as anoikis, which kills and cleans out cancerous cells to keep them from growing and spreading. In addition, stress increases the production of different types of growth factors that promote more blood supply to feed cancerous cells, which in turn speeds up the development of cancerous tumors.4
And finally, if you’re stressed, your behavior often suffers. For example, you might be prone to overeating or insomnia. You might engage in unhealthy behaviors such as drinking too much alcohol, abusing prescription medication or other illicit substances.
All stress is not created equal
There are two types of stress: acute (short-term) stress, and chronic (long-term) stress. Acute stress comes from situations that put you on edge in the moment, like big crowds, tense weekends with extended family, or giving a major presentation at work. It’s not great to experience but at least this stress usually subsides when the event is over.5
Chronic stress is much worse. It’s the kind of endless stress where there appears to be no end point, like caring for a sick loved one or having a long stint of unemployment. This type of long-term stress puts you at risk for digestive problems, depression, and cancer.6
This chronic stress, which goes hand-in-hand with living in uncertain times such as we’re in now, is the one you want to mitigate.
Five weird stress-relieving techniques
There are many common ways we’re told to deal with stress, such as practicing yoga, talking to a mental health professional, meditating, or working to remove the source of your chronic stress such as changing jobs, moving out of a crowded city or setting boundaries in relationships that are creating stress in your life.
There are also other lifestyle choices that are known to have a positive effect on reducing the levels of chronic stress, such as getting more sleep, eating more fruits and vegetables, and exercising more. By the way, daily walking is said to be the best stress-relieving exercise by many experts.
I hope you can incorporate all of these healthy choices into your daily life to curb the effects of any stress that you’re feeling. But there are five other natural but unusual ways to lower your stress levels that are worth mentioning. These include:
- Outblowing: Also called uitwaaien, this is a Dutch “cure” for winter blues. It involves doing physical activity, like a brisk walk or a jog, in chilly, windy weather. Basically, during the times when you most want to hunker down under a blanket and sip something warm is exactly when you should be out running. Known to be energizing and effective at lowering stress, exercising outside in the wind leaves you feeling refreshed and exhilarated (as opposed to finishing a treadmill workout sweaty and hot). Also, it gets you outdoors at a time when most of us don’t see a lot of daylight, and the combination of sunlight and nature also helps alleviate stress.7
- Uncontrollable laughter. If you force yourself to laugh loud and long at something, even if it’s only mildly funny, you’ll prompt the release of feel-good endorphins that lead to much-needed stress relief.8
- Try normal things backwards. That could be writing your name with your non-dominant hand, putting a golf ball from the opposite side you’d normally do, drinking water upside down, or walking backwards around your house. These all require intense focus that can make your mind shift gears and effectively boot you out of your stressed-out state.9
- Go barefoot. I realize this is tricky if you’re on the half of the globe experiencing winter right now, but feeling the grass under your feet or the cool of a slab, or, if you’re especially adventurous, climbing a tree barefoot, can take you back to life as a kid where the simple act of touching something new prompted fascination, which leaves little room in your mind for stress. If you absolutely can’t go outside, ditch the socks and walk barefoot around your own house, noting the soft fibers of a rug or the cool smoothness of tile.10
- Make “slow-down” signs. Consider the things that usually prompt you to be reactive – your phone, your computer, or even your car – and put a green dot on them, using either green stickers or a dot of green nail polish. Then train yourself to slow down and relax, or at the very least, take a deep breath, before using any of them.
One tiny, worthwhile step at a time
What’s the take-home message here?
First of all, chronic stress is dangerous to your health and can increase your risk for cancer. Second, your lifestyle and diet all play a significant role in whether or not chronic stress is able to increase your cancer risk.
So, take any stress seriously. Reduce your stress levels when you can and make healthy, stress-busting lifestyle choices. It’s more important now than ever before.
Nobody alive today knows the long-term effects of a pandemic stretching into its third year. You might say, “I’m fine” but often we don’t realize the effects of stress on our bodies until it has been eating away at us for a significant amount of time and the damage becomes too obvious to miss—like illness.
So, in this brand-new year make a commitment to take care of your stress level. You, and your health, are worth it.
- https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/607707/uitwaaien-outblowing-dutch-cure for-winter-blues