Here are my thoughts:
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According to the scientific study of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) the answer is yes. But we are humans, living in an amazing complex body where most things can be not only black or white but where there’s many shades of gray.
To begin with Stress is a subjective phenomenon. Generally speaking though, it is accepted that stress is a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.
To make things a little less simple, there is “good stress” and “bad stress”. Good stress is deemed “good” because it can give an extra boost of energy or alertness to increase performance. Bad stress is stress that is unrelenting and can be detrimental to mental and physical health. Chronic stress is good stress gone bad if you will; when the fight or flight response does not turn off once the threat is over. 1
So how does stress weaken your immune system?
Chronic stress creates high levels of hormones like cortisol and other corticosteroids, which, if persisting over a long period of time can impact us both mentally and physically. People who suffer from chronic stress may experience mental issues including: anxiety, depression, and sleep issues. Physical symptoms can range from high blood pressure and heart disease to digestive issues and a weakened immune system.
The immune system is comprised of organs, tissues, cells, and cell products that work together to fight harmful pathogens that cause infection and disease. There are two ways that stress has a direct, negative effect on the immune system. It can create chronic inflammation and lower the immunity of those who otherwise might have a healthy immune system. 1
Cortisol suppresses inflammation during a stress response, but if cortisol stays in the blood for long periods, the body can develop a resistance and will not respond to it properly. Instead, the body will increase production of substances that promote inflammation causing chronic inflammation in the body that can eventually lead to autoimmune diseases, chronic conditions, acute illnesses, and lengthy healing times. 1
Here are a few examples of how stress can influence the immune system:
It’s common to hear stories of recently bereaved spouses who die soon after their partner. One study followed 95,647 recently widowed individuals and found that during the first week after bereavement, mortality was twice the expected rate.
- The digestive system
There is an association between sustained stress and the onset of symptoms in gastrointestinal disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
A patient’s outlook and his/her quantity and quality of psychological support can impact the outcome of that person’s disease.
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
Studies show how elevated levels of stress combined with diminished social support can accelerate the progression of the HIV infection.
- Longer wound healing time
- Increased levels of fear or distress before surgery can create longer hospital stays, more postoperative complications, and higher rates of re-hospitalization. A study on patients with chronic lower leg wounds found that those who had higher levels of anxiety and depression showed considerably delayed healing. 2
How do our thoughts influence the immune system?
There is a science that studies the interaction between psychological processes and how these affect the body’s nervous and immune systems. It’s called psychoneuroimmunology or PNI for short. PNI takes into account many of the body’s systems and how they are interconnected combining:
- Behavioral medicine
- Infectious diseases
- Molecular biology
PNI looks at the entire body and how all the systems function in tandem with one another to provide the patient with whole body care. 3
If you have questions about how PNI can help you deal with the stress of cancer treatments, please feel free to contact me now by email email@example.com or phone 617.564.0707.
Facing the unknown of cancer treatment, it is only natural to experience fear and anxiety. Our mind, in an attempt to make sense of what’s ahead, can come up with all kinds of worst-case scenarios, which deplete and depress us. It is therefore vital that we cultivate resilience and strengthen our support system so we can effectively avoid the pitfall of anticipatory anxiety.
Anticipatory anxiety is where a person experiences increased levels of anxiety by thinking about an event or situation in the future.
Interestingly enough in a research study, highly anxious chemotherapy patients suffered twice as much “anticipatory nausea” (18.1%) than the mildly anxious patients did (9.8%).1 Our brains have a tendency to run non-stop like a hamster in a wheel or a chattering monkey. Fortunately there are patterns and behaviors you can learn to combat these negative thoughts and feelings.
Distorted thinking can perpetuate the fear of cancer treatments. Following are a few examples of how thinking can become distorted. See if you can relate to any of these:
- All-or-nothing thinking: Seeing things in the extreme. You may think, “If I even start to feel nauseous I’m stopping all treatment.”
- Overgeneralization: One negative occurrence gets applied it to everything in life. “Why does this always happen to me?” When in reality it hasn’t happened but a few times.
- Disqualifying the positive: Rejecting positive experiences by insisting that they’re flukes. The opposite of over generalization. “That almost never happens!”
Change Your Thinking
We are, in part, products of our environment. This means that some of our thought processes are learned. Therefore when these thoughts are not benefiting us we can learn new ways to cope. Here are a few that will help with anticipatory anxiety:
- Behavior therapy attempts to identify and eventually change unhealthy behaviors. Our behaviors are learned. They are reactions to what happens to us. It’s possible to “unlearn” these behaviors to possess better coping skills.
- Biofeedback can teach you to you use the power of your thoughts to control your body. You’re connected to electrical sensors that give you information about your body so by making subtle changes, such as relaxing certain muscles, you can achieve the desired results such as reduced pain, less nausea, and/or dizziness.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, helps people become aware of their negative interpretations. Many times people may not even realize they interpret situations in a negative way. CBT can help people develop more positive ways of thinking, which can reduce psychological distress.
- Hypnosis, when used as an adjunct therapy to medical treatment, can help in numerous ways. It can help improve patients attitude toward treatment, improve their outlook and even improve their immune response by addressing past life events and trauma shown by the scientific study of Psychoneuroimmunology to suppress the immune system. It can further help resolve and modify destructive behaviors such smoking cessation, curb food intake of sugar and overall improve treatment outcome by addressing treatment side effects so that patients can complete their treatment regiment.
- Progressive muscle relaxation focuses on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. This action helps the patient focus on the difference between muscle tension and relaxation. One method is to start with the muscles in your toes and tense then relax them. Do this throughout your entire body all the up to your head. You can also start with your head and neck and work down to your toes. Imagine that when you relax the muscle, all that tension flows out of your body. When you are fearful this gives you something else to focus on and helps you feel the stress in your muscles and then let it go.
Behaviors can change over time with practice. This is not a quick fix but will give you the tools you need to cope with anticipatory anxiety and other challenges you face in life. If you have questions on these treatments, how they are performed, and how they can help you, please contact me right now by email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 617.564.0707.
Your medical regimen and often time the side effects that follow will impact your quality of life. Some days are better than others but it’s worth being prepared and incorporate habits and activities that can support and increase your comfort and vitality. The age old wisdom that is outlined below is simple, yet effective. It states that we should be cognizant of everything we put into our body – including our thoughts.
Be Aware of What You Eat
When it comes to food the best thing to do is to prepare it ahead of time. Stock up on organic, healthy foods. You and your family can prepare and refrigerate or freeze healthy meals before you begin therapy. This way you’ll have a lot less work to do when you’re not feeling so great. Ensure the meals are nutrient-dense, and organic (whenever possible) to aid your body in its recovery. Choose a variety of fresh and colorful foods such as:
- Fruits, vegetables, and legumes
- Whole grains (Quinoa is a good one. It’s high in protein, gluten-free, easy to prepare and to digest.)
- Low fat lean proteins: Greek yogurt 2% or 0%, eggs, seafood, lean meat, edamame (soybeans in the pod) and unsalted nuts and seeds.
Some foods to avoid or eat less of are:
- Sodium (salt)
- Added sugar
- Simple sugars (white bread, white rice, candy)
- Solid fat
Eat More Frequently
Good news. You can eat smaller, more frequent meals when you’re experiencing side effects. Try five small meals per day rather than three and see if it helps with any digestive issues. Eating this way can also give you sustained energy throughout your day.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Drink water or other liquids frequently. If you don’t like water, you can get your liquids through soup broths (low sodium, of course), fruit and green smoothies, flavored teas, and more. It’s important to drink a lot of water so you stay hydrated and flush unwanted substances from the body.
Mind Body Connection
Besides eating fresh, healthy, and organic foods, there are some really fun activities to try, whether you’ve attempted them in the past or not. All of these can help keep your mind on the positive healing track. Of course as with any treatment, be sure to verify with your doctor that you are cleared to take part in these treatments.
Exercise is beneficial for everyone, but even more so for a patient receiving treatment. Cancer related fatigue is often the most troubling side effect of treatment according to patients. That’s right, even more than nausea, vomiting, pain, or sleep problems, because it affects the ability to perform every day tasks. By getting regular exercise, a patient can sleep better and feel less pain, anxiety, and depression. 1
But what kind of exercise am I talking about? No 5k’s or triathlons, but walking, biking, yoga, tai chi, and water aerobics. Those activities are varied enough that you should not get bored. Each type of exercise can be performed by novices or experts, and each one goes fairly easy on the body yet provides incredible calming and healing benefits.
Additional Alternatives 2
Other important treatments that can provide relief and healing are:
Hypnosis – to work on changing the subconscious so it can work with the body to bring about healing (I think you guessed I’d mention that!)
Massage – yes, please.
Meditation – can help quiet the mind.
Relaxation techniques – uses breath and visualization to calm body and mind
Acupuncture – reduces nausea, vomiting, pain and improves digestion
Aromatherapy – fights anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure 3
Music therapy – benefits patients of all ages and musical abilities. You don’t have to be Mozart or Chopin to reap the benefits. Music therapy promotes wellness, manages stress, reduces pain, and promotes physical rehabilitation. 4
Add these exercises and treatments into your overall healing arsenal to assist you in regaining better health and wellbeing. If you have questions on these treatments, how they are performed, and what they can do for you, please feel free to contact me right now.
22 Mount Auburn Street
Watertown, MA 02472
For more information or to schedule your FREE consultation, call 617.564.0707.
About Avinoam Lerner
Avinoam Lerner is a Practitioner in the Field of Complementary Medicine specializing in Cancer Wellness & Recovery. Author of The New Cancer Paradigm.
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