In last week’s blog, I shared with you some research that shows stress may be linked to cancer. Now I want to share what you can do about it.
To gain more perspective on the subject, I interviewed my friend, Juliette de Campos, who holds an MA in counseling psychology from the University of Santa Monica. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
What are some ways people can better handle stressors in their lives, given they don’t have a lot of time to themselves?
“Step 1. You have to first identify what is causing the stress.
Step 2. Be able to know what stress-free feels like, so you know when you’re off balance.
Step 3. Define activities that help. For some, addressing it directly is the best, and for others, distraction with hobbies like gardening and dancing are more effective.
Step 4. Make it a priority. Don’t let anyone else tell you how; you know what amount of time is necessary for you to come into balance. It’s important not to feel guilty about taking the time to care for yourself.”
You say having a relationship with your body is important. Why is this?
“We all accept that we have relationships with things outside of ourselves; why is it so hard to believe that we have a relationship with our bodies?
Most people accept the premise that if you tell a child over and over that it’s stupid, eventually he/she is going to believe it, and our bodies are the same way. If you tell your body over and over that it’s not well, sooner or later it will believe it. Our bodies respond the way that we relate to them. I choose to see my body as my ally, not as my adversary. It has always been there for me.”
When my body tells me that things are not ok, and I’m not attuned to it, then I ignore it and it proceeds to disease as a way to get my attention. Disease is how our bodies say you HAVE TO do something.”
Why do you say focus on the healing, not the disease?
“Whatever you think about grows stronger. We tend to create the circumstances that we put the most energy into. Whatever we put our attention on, that is what shows up in our reality. So if you focus on your problems, they will tend to multiply in your life. Our minds are much more powerful than we give them credit for. Focus on the conditions you want to create, and put all your energy into them.”
Juliette is an Adjunct Faculty member in the Counseling Department at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA, and writes a personal development column for the Visalia Times-Delta. Read more of her work here.
Some stress is necessary for life. The stress response– when your nervous system is flooded by your “fight or flight” hormones– motivates us to meet deadlines, and is lifesaving in emergency situations. But the effects of chronic stress, are numerous.
Harvard researchers estimate that 60-90% of doctor’s visits are caused by stress. Stress is linked to the following illnesses: heart attacks, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, chronic pain, insomnia, allergies, headache, backache, various skins disorders, cancer, accidents, suicide, depression, immune system weakness, and decreases in the number and function of white blood cells.
The exact opposite of the stress response, is the relaxation response, which is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress. According to Dr. Henry Gerson, who is an attending psychiatrist and medical director of Behavior Health Services at Cayuga Medical Center at Ithaca, New York. “It decreases heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and muscle tension. It shifts immune function towards health maintenance, as opposed to injury repair. Relaxation allows the body to recover energy and promotes rational thinking.”
The follow techniques can help you achieve the relaxation response:
- Mediation. This is the cheapest, fastest way to shut up your brain. It’s hard at first (I still can’t do more than 5 minutes), but it gets easier over time. If you can’t seem to escape your thoughts for more than a minute, try a guided mediation, in which someone leads you through it; you can find lots of free ones on YouTube. Yoga is my favorite form of mediation, as it helps me become more aware of my emotions as they are manifested in my body, such as tension headaches, knots in my back, and restlessness. Unlike taking a Tylenol, yoga heals the cause of these problems, rather than the symptoms. As you perform a series of postures along with deep and slow breathing, you allow your body to relax and develop a better mind/body connection. In a study of health insurance statistics, meditators showed hospitalization rates 87% less than non-meditators for heart disease, 55% less for benign and malignant tumors, 30% less for infectious diseases, and 50% less for out-patient doctor visits.
Orme-Johnson, Psychosomatic Medicine 49 (1987)
- Workout. As a perfectionist, and chronic goal-setter, I can get very stressed about deadlines I set for myself. Remaining completely calm and trusting myself in my path is a constant work in progress. For people who are more passive, this may not be an issue, but for those like me, we must be deliberate in setting our intention for keeping our baseline stress levels low. I’ve found that with my high energy levels, nothing helps me chill out like a good workout. And I’m not talking about taking the dog for a walk. I’m talking about at least 40 minutes of solid, sweat-making activity, be it running, workout programs like Insanity, or dancing.
- Art Therapy. Mynde Mayfield, a breast cancer patient, deals with her stress through art therapy. In her latest blog, Easing Anxiety & Fear With Art Therapy, she describes how creativity can be something as simple as a coloring book, to something as expressive as oil on canvas. She gives credit to this hobby as being crucial in her journey to wellness. Focusing on creativity has helped her focus on pleasure and slow down her anxious mental chatter. “Art therapy is teaching me how to remain present with uncertainty. I’m practicing trusting myself and this journey through Cancerville, believing there are no mistakes & I can’t do any part of this wrong. Which is the same advice every good art teacher gives to her students.” You can read more on Mynde’s website.
- Journaling. Studies show writing about your daily life can improve cognitive function and clarity. If you’re a perfectionist, try not to focus on your penmanship, or whether you’re properly expressing your experience. Your entries will not be graded, so just let it flow, and proof later. If you’re hurt or angry about something in your life, pour all of your feelings about the topic in your journal, so you won’t be carrying them around. If you get impatient with your writing, or feel that there is too much to possibly fit into a journal, then commit yourself to just one page every other day. Try not to only write about the bad stuff. You can also use this tool to escape from the stressors, by listing your dreams, your purpose in life, memories that make you happy, things you’re grateful for, goals, and other people or places that inspire you.
- Affirmations. Even with the use of other stress reduction techniques, your baseline stress won’t completely dissolve until you retrain your thought patterns. Positive affirmations are simple phrases like, “I am positive and peaceful.” If you don’t believe the statements you are saying, try using affirmations that show progress, like, “I am learning to take time for my wellbeing every day.” Repeat these statements over and over for two-three solid minutes without interruption several times a day. Being consistent can override your habitual negative self-talk and replace it with healthier thoughts until eventually you won’t need to make an effort to repeat them because it will happen naturally via your subconscious mind.
- Dancing. My favorite therapy is salsa dancing. It’s one of the few social activities I can do, where I show up stressed and depressed and leave on Cloud 9. As a female, since we follow and not lead, I don’t have to think about the next moves of the dance; I just completely let go and let the music carry me away. The clubs are usually so loud and there are so many people dancing that could run into you, that you have no choice but to focus on what’s going on at that very moment. By the end of the night, you’ve had such a good time dancing, that you’re too happy to care about your problems.
- Breathwork. It sounds silly, because we’re all born knowing how to breathe, but often times when we’re stressed, we tense up and hold our breath or hyperventilate. In both cases, we don’t expand our lungs the way they should be expanded. Breathing exercises are great because they’re fast, free, and you get immediate results. Doing these exercises properly creates a rush of oxygen through your bloodstream, helping your body to relax and your mind to clear. Annette Tersigni, also known as The Yoga Nurse, is an expert in this area, among others. In her video, Sacred Breath, she reminds us how to breathe. “Your breath is your silent partner, your silent beloved, your very lifeforce, your very spirit, indeed the Holy Spirit.”
Everyone handles stressors differently, and the stress relieving technique that works for you, may not work for your friend or your mom.
How do you find relief from stress?