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What is stress?

We are all familiar with the term “stress”. In fact, the very name can cause many of us to react negatively. Stress is the body’s response to events that demand attention. Many things in one’s daily life can trigger this response, including change. Changes can be good or bad, as well as short term and long term. Not all changes are bad. For example, some changes such as getting a promotion are good changes. But there are also changes that can affect us negatively, such as getting divorced or being diagnosed with a cancer

In our daily lives, we are constantly faced with situations and events that cause us to be stressed. There are three types of stress: acute, episodic, and chronic stress.

  • Acute Stress: It is the most widely experienced stress and one that we are all too familiar with. It is caused by daily demands and pressures and actually brings about some excitement, joy, and thrill into our lives. Acute stress occurs for a very short period of time
  • Episodic Stress: Repetitive acute stress is called episodic stress. People with episodic stress tend to be over-aroused, short- tempered, irritable, and anxious. It is frequently observed across “Type A” personalities and worry warts. (Theoretically, there are two types of personalities: type A and type B. Type A individuals live a more active, ambitious, and proactive life. Type B, in contrast, manage their life with lower stress levels and face less competition for example). The symptoms of episodic stress are: persistent tension headaches, migraines, chest pain, and heart disease.
  • Chronic Stress: Chronic stress is the opposite of acute stress; it can be dangerous and unhealthy. This type of stress is caused by long term exposures to stressors such as traumatic experiences, chronic illnesses, relationship conflicts etc. The stress accumulates and it can cause a person to resort to violence, suicide, and/or self-harm. It can also be associated with serious illnesses such as stroke, heart attack, cancer, and clinical depression.

So how does our body react chemically to stress?

headstressWhen our body is faced with stress, we release three chemicals: norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol. These chemicals increase our blood pressure, heart rate, and elevate our blood sugar levels. All of which prompt us to react or act in the classic, “flight” or “fight” response. People with chronic stress have been found to have higher levels of norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol.

A number of studies have demonstrated that stress can disrupt neuroendocrine circadian rhythms in ways that favor tumor growth and metastasis. Higher cortisol levels have also been associated with a weakened immune system, memory loss, and even weight gain.

Does chronic stress even cause cancer?

Research suggests that stress does not cause cancer. However, it has been shown that chronic stress can lead to experiencing digestive problems, weakened immune systems (increasing susceptibility to influenza), and fertility problems. A weakened immune system can influence cancer development but does not cause cancer.

This is demonstrated through physiological and molecular studies in which one suggests that chronic stress can indeed influence cancer development and progression. Clinical and epidemiological studies over the last 30 years have also identified psychosocial factors including stress, chronic depression and lack of social support as risk factors for cancer progression. The effects of stress on tumor growth have been examined using in vivo models. In one study, researchers found that chronic stress resulted in high levels of norepinephrine in serum, and led to the activation of a cell signaling pathway for lung tissue. That is, it led to the formation of lung tumor in vivo.

Other studies have revealed that chronic stress also affects the activation of specific pathways in cancer cell growth which can lead to tumor growth and progression.

Since chronic stress is bad for your health, what can you do to manage it?

Being physically active, practicing mindfulness and yoga, and having a healthy diet are some ways to manage stress.

Several studies proved a positive change in the body’s response to stress after practicing mindfulness based stress reduction techniques. Yoga appears to moderate stress response by modulating heart rate, blood pressure and easing up breathing. Further, physical activity has also been shown to reduce the negative effects of stress. Aiming to exercise for at least 20 to 30 minutes per day can help you manage your stress and improve your overall well being.

Support groups and talking about what you are facing will also help you manage your stress. Talking to a loved one, a friend, or a family member can offer perspective and reduce anxiety. It can help you feel that you are not alone and provides an outlet for discussing fears and anxieties. 

In conclusion, it is very important that we take care and find ways to manage our stress and not let it turn into chronic stress. The key is to remember that you are not alone and that with consistent practice, you can manage and take control over your stress.

References:

  • Hyun-Ji Jang, Hye-Jin Boo, Yujin Jung, Hye-Young Min, Ho-Young Lee. Chronic stress promotes lung cancer development via IGF-1R pathway. [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research; 2015 Apr 18-22; Philadelphia, PA. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2015;75(15 Suppl): Abstract nr 2729. doi:10.1158/1538-7445.AM2015-2729
  • Moraska, A., Fleshner, M. (2001). Voluntary physical activity prevents stress-induced behavioral depression and anti-KLH antibody suppression. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology Aug, 281 (2) R484-R489.
  • Moreno-Smith, M., Lutgendorf, S. K., & Sood, A. K. (2010). Impact of stress on cancer metastasis. Future Oncology (London, England), 6(12), 1863–1881.
  • “Physical Activity and Cancer.” National Cancer Institute. National Cancer Institute, 22 July 2009. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.
  • “Psychological Stress and Cancer.” National Cancer Institute. National Cancer Institute, 10 December 2010. Web. 15 December 2015.
  • Sephton S, Spiegel D. Circadian disruption in cancer: a neuroendocrine–immune pathway from stress to disease? Brain Behav. Immun. 2003;17(5):321–328.
  • Sharma, M., Rush SE. (2014). Mindfulness-based stress reduction as a stress management intervention for healthy individuals: a systematic review. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. Oct;19(4):271-86. doi: 10.1177/2156587214543143. Epub 2014 Jul 22.
  • Spiegel, D. (2014). Minding the body: psychotherapy and cancer survival. Br J Health Psychol. 2014 Sep;19(3):465-85. doi: 10.1111/bjhp.12061. Epub 2013 Aug 26.