Taking control of your stress

Stress can feel like an unavoidable part of life, especially if you or a loved one is undergoing cancer treatment. Thankfully, there are ways to manage stress. Experts at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center are here to help you better understand and treat the problem.

Stress is harmful to your health

According to Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson, stress has physiological effects. For example, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your breathing becomes faster and shallower. Such responses evolved long ago to help our ancestors deal with threats from wild animals and dangerous weather, Cohen said.

In other words, stress is natural. But certain factors within your life can cause you to stress excessively – perhaps beyond your coping abilities. Anil Sood, M.D., professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at MD Anderson, explained what these effects mean for your overall health.

“If chronic stress isn’t managed, it can literally speed up the aging process and increase the risk for heart disease, sleeping difficulties, digestive problems, and even depression,” said Sood, who conducts research on the effects of stress on cancer growth and metastasis.

“The health-damaging effects of chronic stress are well-documented in the medical literature,” he said. “Research indicates that it affects almost every biologic system.”

Chronic stress can cause people to abandon healthy eating and exercise habits that help prevent cancer and other diseases. These people may find themselves self-medicating with comfort food, binge-watching TV shows, or unable to sleep because they’re kept awake by all-consuming thoughts and worries.

“Research shows that healthy diet, sleep, and exercise habits can buffer the negative effects of stress. But chronic stress can sabotage these healthy lifestyle habits,” Cohen said.

A change in perspective can prevent stress

Cohen said that even unavoidable stress can be managed. We all have the ability to cope with the stressors that enter our lives.

“Say you have two people who are dealing with the same thing. One person may see it as a fun challenge. But the other person may experience anxiety and worry,” he said.

Approaching tasks and activities with a different mindset can help offset feelings of fear and worry. “You can’t control the traffic, for example,” Cohen said. “But you can control how you handle it. Maybe you can leave earlier. Or you can use the times when you’re stopped at red lights or in heavy traffic to do quick meditations.”

Find your own solution

It’s important to learn stress-reducing techniques that work for you. According to Cohen and Sood, identifying stress-relieving activities and developing coping strategies can help us better manage the inevitable stress we will face.

Cohen suggests mind-body practices, such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, or qigong. Research shows that such practices improve quality of life, reverse the harmful effects of stress, and create fundamental changes in how the brain works.

Whenasked to recommend the best mind-body practice for reducing stress, Cohen said that it all depends on the person. His advice? Do your research and try new things. That might include attending a variety of classes and working with different teachers. It’s all about identifying something that works for you – something you’ll use on a regular basis.

“Ideally, you should practice these techniques when you’re not stressed so you can use them more easily when a stressful situation arises,” Cohen said. “Find something that you’ll do for 30 to 60 minutes every day. And then make it a part of your life. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.”

A deep breath can move mountains

Stress tends to make your breathing become rapid and shallow.

Cohen advises taking 30- to 60-second breaks throughout the day to focus on your breath; this can help lower your stress level.

“Take long, slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths and extend the exhale over the inhale. Be mindful – concentrate on the sensation of air moving in and out of your body as you breathe, your belly pushing out as you breathe in and dropping as you breathe out. Don’t judge your thoughts. Just focus on your breath,” he said.

Challenge yourself to practice this way of breathing so you’re prepared for what may be a stressful situation. Cohen uses a doctor’s appointment as an example: “Get centered in the parking lot before you even walk in the door.”

Making progress

By recognizing what stress is, identifying how it affects our overall well-being, and finding ways to treat or prevent it, we’re setting ourselves up for healthier, more enjoyable lives.

To learn more, visit mdanderson.org.