My neighbor, Joe, made an interesting observation the other day while we were discussing autoimmune diseases. He told me that his brother suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and that it was to be expected because his brother lives a very stressful life and doesn’t do anything to eliminate it.
Then, my brother called to tell me that a family friend was diagnosed with cancer. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “He’s always had so much stress in his life and such a negative attitude about everything.”
Hmmmm. Could it be true? Can chronic stress cause illnesses? Yes. Some we know for sure. Some are not conclusively proven.
“Studies have found many health problems related to stress. Stress seems to worsen or increase the risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma,” states WebMD.com’s website.
WebMD also says that stress can affect how you age. “One study compared the DNA of mothers who were under high stress with women who were not. Researchers found that a particular region of the chromosomes showed the effects of accelerated aging. Stress seemed to accelerate aging about 9 to 17 additional years.”
Other studies have shown that headaches, both tension and migraine, can be brought on by excessive stress. And, developing hypertension (aka high blood pressure) is often attributed to people who live a high-stress life.
But what about cancer? Can prolonged stress cause cancer? The National Institute on Health isn’t sure.
“Although stress can cause a number of physical health problems, the evidence that it can cause cancer is weak. Some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, but others have not,” they say.
Although the research isn’t conclusive, they do say that habits developed because of stress, such as smoking, overeating and alcohol consumption, can lead to a higher risk of cancer.
“Someone who has a relative with cancer may have a higher risk for cancer because of a shared inherited risk factor, not because of the stress induced by the family member’s diagnosis,” NIH says.
And, what about Joe’s brother? Can stress cause autoimmune diseases? The National Center for Biotechnology Information says yes it can:
“Physical and psychological stress has been implicated in the development of autoimmune disease…Moreover, many retrospective studies found that a high proportion (up to 80 percent) of patients reported uncommon emotional stress before disease onset. Unfortunately, not only does stress cause disease, but the disease itself also causes significant stress in the patients, creating a vicious cycle.”
So, what can you do? Make an appointment to have a complete physical examination to rule out any justifiable causes for your stress and to talk to your primary care provider about your mental health.
There is a multitude of self-help articles, books, CDs, DVDs, exercise programs all tailored to reducing stress. I just read about a technique that I’m going to try to discipline myself to do right away. I found it on Mayo Clinic’s website.
They say to identify areas of your life that you usually think negatively about, whether it’s work, your daily commute or a relationship and focus on what you can approach in a more positive way.
I live in Hope. Not the state of mind, the town. I drive to Sandpoint at least three times a week. When I get behind someone who doesn’t drive the speed limit I get a mild case of road rage. But now, instead of swearing and aggravating myself, I’m going to think about how lucky I am that I can afford my car, am still able to drive, have friends in town, etc.
Mayo also suggests practicing positive self-talk.
“Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else …If a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with affirmations of what is good about you. Think about things you’re thankful for in your life.”
I’m thankful for my readers, my neighbors, my friends and the hospital which I hope to stay out of by working on my stress levels.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.