Long ago, humans used the fight-or-flight response to survive natural threats, such as man-eating tigers. Today, the stress response has become a complicated dynamic, linking mind, body, spirit, and emotions. Ironically, the responses originally designed to help us survive threats, today can put you at risk for health problems and disease. But it doesn't have to be that way. Stress can also motivate you to seek help, resolve issues, practice forgiveness, and find inner peace. The most effective stress-management program, regardless of circumstance, is based on the idea of balance. Many things can knock you off center, but if you recognize this and seek to restore your sense of balance, you can move toward a state of equilibrium. First, let's look at the aspects of cancer associated with stress, and then focus on how you can cope with it by finding peace mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
The Fear of Cancer
There are many reasons why stress arises at the mere mention of the word cancer. There are many fears associated with the disease, including:
Fear of the unknown. Many questions arise when a doctor diagnoses you with cancer. What kind of cancer is it? What stage is it in? How do I treat it (chemotherapy, radiation, surgery)? Will I die from it? How long do I have to live? What did I do to deserve this? Why did this happen to me? Fear of the unknown can either motivate you to seek more information, or it may immobilize you. You may conquer your fear of the unknown with an inquisitive and balanced mind. Seek answers, but don't become overwhelmed with too much information.
Fear of isolation. Many patients with cancer feel like social outcasts; others, in their own fear, may withdraw, adding to their feelings of isolation. While the initial shock of a cancer diagnosis may make you feel alone, you may overcome your fear by talking about your feelings. Support groups are a great way to resolve your fear.
Fear of failure. This fear may show up, often as guilt, if you appear to make little or no progress during your treatment. The premise of holistic wellness is that you must take an active role, or responsibility, in your own health. Try to manage your fear by taking an active role in your treatment.
Fear of death and dying. This fear arises when you confront your own (or a loved one's) mortality. If you have many unresolved issues that you need to address, this fear may surface. However, in our culture, many people still consider death a taboo subject, and it remains a difficult topic to address. Making peace with yourself and your loved ones is the first step in facing your fear. The next step is focusing on living (not dying) and doing things you really enjoy.
Signs of stress
Stress from cancer develops in different ways, from feelings of being overwhelmed with responsibilities (both patient and caregiver), to feelings of resignation and helplessness. Here are some of the more common signs and symptoms of stress from a holistic perspective.
Body. Initially, stress can energize you, but without adequate rest, stress can deplete your energy. You can feel fatigue rather quickly. On-again, off-again fatigue may turn into constant lethargy. In addition, headaches, allergies, muscle tension, and gastrointestinal problems may arise. Stress can and does cause wear and tear on the body.
Emotions. Stressful emotions can range from anger (impatience and frustration) to guilt, anxiety, apathy, and resentment. Left unresolved, these emotions can pull you into a downward spiral of depression.
Spirit. A lackluster spirit becomes cynical, sarcastic, unforgiving, and apathetic. Stress affects the three pillars of human spirituality: relationships, values, and life purpose.
Current research suggests that the mind and body are really one entity, not two separate parts. Stated simply, there is no separation or division between the mind, body, spirit, and emotions. The best stress management program is one that moves you from fear toward peace, however you understand that concept.
A cancer stress management program
There are hundreds of ways to cope with stress. The goal of each approach, whether coping skills or relaxation techniques, is to replace your tension with serenity — mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. The following are suggestions for coping with stress.
Support groups. Find a support group of people who live in your area and who are patients with cancer (or caregivers), like yourself. Research indicates that people who belong to a support group are better able to cope with the stress of their disease. While online support groups are a good start, actually meeting with people and sitting down to discuss problems, issues, and concerns is emotionally healing. Aside from providing comfort and morale boosts, support groups also provide information, a great way to help you cope with the fear of the unknown.
Humor therapy (comic relief). While anger and fear are normal (and even healthy, in small amounts), they are not healthy when left unresolved for prolonged periods of time. Unresolved emotions can actually suppress your immune system. Humor not only helps decrease your fear of death and dying, it helps relieve your anger as well. If nothing else, humor can distract you from the pain and suffering that may be associated with cancer.
Massage therapy. Muscle tension is the number one symptom of stress, regardless of the stressor. Massage therapy reduces muscle tension and promotes inner peace. There are many different types of massage (Swedish, sports massage, myofascial release, rolfing, craniosacral). Someone on your health care team or support group may know someone you can go to for a full body massage. You will be amazed by how good it feels.
Complementary and integrative medicine. The field of complementary and integrative medicine is loaded with various forms of healing. The purpose of all forms of complementary healing is to help your mind, body, spirit, and emotions achieve equilibrium.
Affirmations and prayer. Although a positive attitude is often hard to keep when your body is under attack, self-talk can be very effective in helping you maintain your equilibrium. Studies show that prayer can help you find peace of mind and heal spiritually. Prayer helps you to feel connected to a larger universe. You may feel disconnected from this larger entity in times of stress. Prayer is medicine for the soul.
Healthy nutrition. The connection between proper nutrition and health cannot be overstated. While there is a flood of special diets on the market to improve health, common sense suggests that everyone should eat balanced meals for a healthy immune system. There are two guidelines to keep in mind: First, minimize the amount of toxins you take into your body. Second, boost your body's natural healing ability. The following recommendations will help you do both:
Consider eating more vegetables. Not only are they high in fiber (reducing toxins in your gastrointestinal tract), they are often loaded with health-enhancing antioxidants.
Eat lower-fat, protein-rich foods. Chicken and fish are full of protein or amino acids. Low-fat milk and cheeses are other protein sources.
Remember your essential fatty acids. The body cannot produce certain oils, like omega-3 and omega-6, so you must ingest them from natural sources. Most foods contain omega-6 oils, but most people do not get enough omega-3s. This can affect the integrity of each of your cell's membrane. Salmon and flax seed oil are great sources of omega-3s.
There is no doubt that cancer can be very stressful, but it doesn't have to stay that way. It is possible for you to achieve peace, balance, and harmony through following some of the recommendations discussed. Try to remember that balance is the key to life!