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A disease such as cancer is often one of the most stressful experiences of a person's life. Psychological stress describes what people feel when they are under mental, physical, or emotional pressure. People who experience high levels of psychological stress over a long period of time may develop health problems. Stress has not been shown to cause cancer. But chronic stress may weaken the immune system, causing other health problems and decreasing feelings of well-being.

A disease such as cancer is often one of the most stressful experiences of a person's life. Psychological stress describes what people feel when they are under mental, physical, or emotional pressure. People who experience high levels of psychological stress over a long period of time may develop health problems. Stress has not been shown to cause cancer. But chronic stress may weaken the immune system, causing other health problems and decreasing feelings of well-being.

Response of body to stress

The body responds to physical, mental, or emotional pressure by releasing stress hormones (such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) that increase blood pressure, speed heart rate, and raise blood sugar levels. These changes help a person act with greater strength and speed to escape a perceived threat.

Research has shown that people who experience intense and long-term (i.e., chronic) stress can have digestive problems, fertility problems, urinary problems, and a weakened immune system. People who experience chronic stress are also more prone to viral infections such as the flu or common cold and to have headaches, sleep trouble, depression, and anxiety.

Effect of psychological stress on cancer patients

People who have cancer may find the physical, emotional, and social effects of the disease to be stressful. Those who attempt to manage their stress with risky behaviors such as smoking or drinking alcohol or who become more sedentary may have a poorer quality of life after cancer treatment. In contrast, people who are able to use effective coping strategies to deal with stress, such as relaxation and stress management techniques, have been shown to have lower levels of depression, anxiety, and symptoms related to the cancer and its treatment. However, there is no evidence that successful management of psychological stress improves cancer survival.

Although there is still no strong evidence that stress directly affects cancer outcomes, some data do suggest that patients can develop a sense of helplessness or hopelessness when stress becomes overwhelming. This response is associated with higher rates of death, although the mechanism for this outcome is unclear.

Stress management strategies

The following are tips to help reduce stress:

  • Exercise regularly. Moderate exercise such as a 30-minute walk several times a week can help lower stress. Talk with your doctor before starting an exercise schedule.
  • Schedule social activities. Make time to socialize with family or friends, as it is a good way to reduce stress.
  • Eat well, and get plenty of sleep. Maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough rest will give you more energy to deal with daily stressors.
  • Join a support group. Support groups offer you the chance to talk about your feelings and fears with others who share and understand your experiences. You can also talk with a trusted friend, a counselor, or a social worker.
  • Schedule daily relaxing time. Spend time doing an activity you find relaxing, such as reading a book, gardening, or listening to music.
  • Do things you enjoy. Eat at your favorite restaurant, or watch your favorite television show. Laughter reduces stress; see a funny movie or read a humorous book.
  • Write in a journal. Writing about the stresses and events in your life provides a private way to express your feelings.
  • Learn a new hobby. Engaging in a new and challenging activity gives you a sense of accomplishment and provides distraction from daily worries. Examples include taking an art class or playing a musical instrument.

Relaxation techniques

  • Relaxed or deep breathing. This technique involves deep, slow breathing while concentrating on filling the lungs and relaxing muscles.
  • Mental imagery or visualization. This helps you create peaceful and relaxing images in the mind.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. This technique involves tightening and then relaxing muscles. Most people start at either the toes or the head and progressively relax all the muscles across the body.
  • Meditation. With this technique, you can learn to relax your mind and concentrate on an inner sense of calm.
  • Yoga. Yoga focuses the mind on breathing and posture to promote relaxation and reduce fatigue.
  • Resource: Cancer.net NCI