Restore Emotional Well-Being Stress Management
By Nicole Ennis Whitehead, Ph.D.
Breast Cancer is the most common form of cancer among American women. This means that American women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year more than with any other type of cancer. Fortunately, there have been significant improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of this disease, which means that many women are able to successfully overcome breast cancer.
However, unlike the treatment for heart disease and other illnesses, the treatment for breast cancer is more toxic and intensive. This results in increased demands physically, psychologically and socially on women who are coping with breast cancer treatment. Women’s physical resources are taxed by surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and other follow-up treatments that may last for years. Psychologically, medical factors around diagnosis and treatment, including stage, clinical course and response to treatment, place increased demands on women’s resources.
And finally, women find themselves managing their support networks, oncology team, work and other life demands. All of these demands in the context of making treatment decisions often leave women stressed at a time when they cannot afford the negative effects of stress on their health. Understanding the relationship between our bodies and our minds is an ongoing process. Scientists have researched how the two interact for decades, and while they have made some progress there is still a lot to learn.
One area that has received a lot of attention is how stress affects our health. We know that stress can negatively affect the body’s defense against infection and disease. We now are working to better understand how stress can make us susceptible to disease.
Let’s begin by having a working definition of what stress is. We define stress as the physical, mental or emotional tension experienced by an individual in reaction to an event. Stress is a normal part of our everyday lives and has positive, as well as negative, effects on our functioning. In the right amount, stress can be motivating and give us the inspiration we need to reach for the best from ourselves every day. However, in excess stress can have negative effects on our physical and emotional well-being.
Too much stress can become a problem because every time we feel tension in response to an event the body has what is known as a stress response. The body responds to stress by releasing stress hormones commonly known as adrenaline and cortisol. The body produces these hormones to help give people the strength they need to deal with the stressful situation. These hormones increase the body’s heart rate, blood pressure and blood-sugar levels. However, if an individual is under constant stress, researchers believe that these stress hormones begin to have a negative effect the person’s health. Therefore, one of the best ways for us to care for ourselves is to make sure that our daily stress does not overwhelm us.
So, how can you manage your stress?
Finding effective ways to “de-stress” and relax is important in enhancing your immunity and restoring your mind and body back to health. In his book, Psychological and Behavioral Treatments for Disorders Associated with the Immune System, Steven Locke, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in behavioral medicine or mind/body medicine, describes more than 200 studies on the treatment of cancer by "mind/body" methods. Among the methods most often used by breast cancer patients are those that reduce anxiety, such as meditation relaxation techniques. A reduction in the anxiety, depression and helplessness that often accompany the disease can make it easier to make decisions about treatment.
Sharing one's fears and frustrations with a psychotherapist or members of a cancer support group can provide invaluable emotional stability and relief. Being around healthy and positive people is also important.
One of the best ways to deal with stress is to try to counter the negative effects of stress in the moment of the stressful event. One of the best ways to deal with a stressful event of any kind is to do any type of deep breathing. Taking in big deep inhales and releasing powerful cleansing exhales goes a long way to calming the body. Other methods for dealing with stress are to consider walking away for a few moments of quiet time to collect your thoughts, getting plenty of rest and exercising to improve the body’s defenses. Stress is an integral part of all of our lives, so we should find the best ways we can to manage it.
Meditation is also an effective way of relaxing the body (and mind) and strengthening its anti-cancer and healing defenses. Meditation reduces stress and improves the emotionaland mental well-being of breast cancer survivors.
Practicing meditation for 15 to 20 minutes at a time (usually twice a day) results in a kind of dynamic awareness in which your mind is alert and attentive, but tranquil at the same time. Being in a meditative state tends to carry over into your daily experience, affording you more clarity and flexibility in your daily decisions and actions. Consequently, your mind becomes better able to concentrate amid distractions and more inclined to relax spontaneously in high-pressure situations. In many cases, you can begin to enjoy the simpler pleasures in life, and your mood can improve dramatically.
The following resources provide answers to frequently asked questions about causes of stress, how women react to stress and ways to manage stress:
American Cancer Society’s Find Support and Treatment - Meditation
Meditation May Reduce Stress in Breast Cancer Patients
Meditation Helps Women with Breast Cancer
WebMD’s Blissing Out: 10 Relaxation Techniques to Reduce Stress On-the-Spot
Meditation for Breast Cancer Treatment
The National Women’s Health Information Center (NWHIC)’s fact sheet Stress and Your Health
National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH)
For more information on stress management, go to Breast Cancer Partner’s Resources. You can also share your knowledge and success with other survivors in our Partner Forum or at Survivor Tips.