Whether you’re facing cancer, another chronic illness, or even just trying to stay as healthy as possible don’t overlook the importance of your emotional well-being.
Your mental and emotional state directly impacts your cells, your immune system, your digestion, your hormonal system, your nervous system…you get the idea, right?
When you’re doing everything you can to help your body heal and stay healthy, you’re mental and emotional wellness needs to be nurtured too.
There are two parts to this important concept. One is the way your feelings, beliefs, and psychological state influence your health. The other is how an illness or chronic disease influences your emotional well-being and how this can then impact your ability to heal.
Increasing Disease Risk
Second only to food, emotions and thought patterns are our primary epigenetic modifiers. This means that what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling can actually change the way your genes are expressed!
According to the Center for Disease Control, higher levels of well-being are linked to:
- A lower risk of disease, illness, and injury
- A speedier recovery from disease, illness, or injury
- A better-functioning immune system
- A longer life
Well-being is defined as judging life positively and feeling good. In other words, staying positive and happy can go a long way toward protecting your health.
There are no grounds for the claim that a psychological trauma could be the sole cause of cancer. BUT psychological conditions can dramatically affect your body’s terrain where the seed of cancer can develop. Just like your diet, exercise, and the quality of the air and water you’re exposed to can also influence this terrain.
Many cancer patients remember a particularly stressful period, a loss, or a traumatic experience during the months or years leading up to their cancer diagnosis. This is explored in much more detail in the book “Anticancer: A New Way Of Life” by David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD.
Dr. Servan-Schreiber explains that these mostly involve setbacks that elicit strong feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. According to a 2006 article in Nature Reviews Cancer, “such emotional states can give a cancer illness the opportunity to develop more quickly”.
A fascinating study from the University of California Berkeley analyzed the results of a longitudinal study undertaken in Finland in a region characterized by an abnormally high rate of mortality in relatively young men. It was a 6-year study of men who were initially healthy and asked to answer “true” or “false” to the following two questions:
- “I feel that it is impossible to reach the goals I would like to strive for”
- “The future seems to me to be hopeless, and I can’t believe that things are going to change for the better”
Six years later, with all other factors being equal, the men who had rated both statements “true” had a mortality rate 3 times higher than those who answered both statements “false”. They also developed 160% more fatal cancers!
These results were confirmed by a wide-scale meta-analysis of 165 studies. The authors from that study concluded that psychosocial factors linked to stress are correlated with an increase in the risk of cancer in healthy people and with a reduction of survival rates in people who have cancer.
Your Experience Of The Disease
Hearing the words “you have cancer” can fracture your world and leave you with a surge of feelings…dazed, confused, shocked, angry, sad, scared, overwhelmed, etc. These are totally normal reactions and to be expected.
However when these feelings linger problems can arise. Surveys find that up to 50% of cancer patients experience symptoms of depression and up to 25% experience anxiety.
How intensely a person experiences their cancer diagnosis is dependent on two factors. One is the stress and burden posed by the cancer journey itself. The second involves the level of resources available to cope with this stress and burden. The balance of these two factors determines the psychological health of the cancer survivor in both the short and long-term.
You want to have and express authentic feelings but you also don’t want to get stuck in the feelings of depression and despair. These psychological feelings can actually impact your body’s ability to heal.
A study from the National Cancer Institute demonstrated that women with breast cancer who were better able to face their disease psychologically had much more active NK (natural killer) cells that those who sank into depression and helplessness. These results were confirmed in women with ovarian cancer as well. Those who felt loved and supported and who kept up their morale had more combative NK cells than those who felt alone, helpless, and emotionally distraught.
The immune system (NK cells, T cells, B cells) is particularly sensitive to feelings of helplessness; when the patient gives up and feels that life is no longer worth living, the immune system lays down its arms as well.
Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist from Stanford University, published a study in The Lancet in 1989 that showed a link between mental state and disease progression. For one year women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer had met in a weekly support group, run by Dr. Spiegel’s team. What he found in follow-up to this study 10 years later surprised even himself. All of these women had an expectation of survival from a few months to a few years. 3 of the 50 who had originally participated were still alive. No one in the control group had survived that long. In all he observed that the women who had participated in the support groups survived twice as long as the others.
Why Me? Why Not Me?
Just because the cancer is gone, doesn’t mean the negative feelings are gone. Nearly 12 million Americans—4% of the population—are still alive after a cancer diagnosis. In many respects this is terrific news, and a testament to improved diagnosis and treatment options. But survivorship comes at a psychological price.
The ongoing mental and emotional challenges are sometimes worse than the physical treatments endured during treatment. Follow-up medical visits, unexplained pain, or even sights and sounds associated with treatment can trigger bouts of anxiety and fear that are as debilitating as those that occurred during treatment.
Although happy to be alive, cancer survivors may feel guilty that they survived while fellow patients they became friendly with during treatment or as part of a support group did not. Early after a diagnosis of cancer, people first ask, “Why me?”. When survivors think about those who have died, they tend to ask, “Why not me?”.
The most notable psychological challenge accompanying remission is the fear of recurrence. Feeling one’s future may be cut short is a central element in the fear of cancer recurrence. It is also one of the defining symptoms used to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has been estimated that up to 30% of cancer survivors experience PTSD linked to their cancer experience following completion of their treatment.
A 2016 German study in Psycho-Oncology found that 82.5% of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer had symptoms of PTSD between the time they were diagnosed and the start of treatment, and that even a year after diagnosis, 57% of the women still had some symptoms of PTSD.
Strategies To Boost Emotional Well-Being
Applying mind-body strategies can help you manage the unsettling emotions you are likely experiencing. They can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, along with feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. They can help to minimize side effects and improve quality of life during treatment. You can learn to relax and build resilience. You can find the way to not just survive but to enjoy life again and experience peace and fulfillment.
Here are 3 steps to help you achieve greater emotional wellness, even in the face of disease.
Step 1. Reconnect With Your Life Force
When your thoughts are spinning and life feels out of control the best remedy is to reconnect to your life force. This is the inner most part of you. Your sacred self. Your soul. There are many different techniques that can help with this. All of the great medical and spiritual traditions in the East have taught that anyone can take over the reins of their inner being and bodily functioning simply by concentrating the mind and focusing on the breath. By calming stress and reestablishing harmony in the body, you will also help to stimulate your body’s natural defenses.
- Breathing Exercises
- Tai Chi
- Qi Gong
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Body Scanning
- Reiki (or other energy practices)
Step 2. Build Resilience
Resilience is “the ability to adapt in adverse conditions”. Cancer and chronic disease would definitely qualify as an “adverse condition”. The more resilient you are, the better able you are to move through treatment, manage the twists and turns along the way, and come out on the other side. I’ve been sharing the cancer journey that my Dad has been on this last year and there’s no question that my parents’ resilience has helped them get this far. You can help yourself become more resilient, even in the face of adversity. Here are some ways to do just that.
- Nurture Yourself: It may seem obvious but eating nourishing foods, getting enough sleep, maintaining regular exercise, spending time in nature, will all help you build resilience.
- Lean On Your Support Network: This can take several forms. Part of this is to ask for and receive help from your loved ones, family, friends, and community. The other part is to have supportive people in your life, whether this is family & friends or even a support group of other patients, that you can share how you’re feeling and talk about the ups and downs of your journey.
- Focus On What You Can Control: Each day ask yourself what is one thing I can do today that will support my healing and move me in the direction I want to go. This is your #1 tool for removing powerlessness and helplessness. Recognize that you do have control over this journey, or at least part of it. Bring in the strategies that will help your body heal; diet, supplements, fasting, stress support, etc.
- Stay Hopeful: An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that a good outcome is possible. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear. Make plans for your future and set goals to help you get there. Read inspiring stories of others who have recovered from cancer or your disease and moved beyond it.
- Find Moments Of Fun: One of the best ways to release stress and boost endorphins is to have fun; doing an activity you love, watching a funny movie, being with people who make you laugh. Just because you’re facing a serious illness doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to still have some fun and joyful moments in your life.
Step 3. Heal Past Wounds
Poorly healed emotional scars drain a significant amount of energy and hamper the body’s capacity for self defense. A study of more than 10,000 women in Finland showed that the loss of an important emotional relationship doubled their risk for breast cancer. Break-ups and painful divorces may be even more directly correlated with cancer than the death of a spouse because the feelings of helplessness transforms the painful event into a full-fledged trauma. Relieving the pain of trauma is not a treatment for cancer but it can help your natural defenses recover their strength, which can aid in healing. Here are some different ways that can support your emotional healing.
- EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing)
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Spiritual Support
- Art Therapy
- Music Therapy
- Forgiveness: If all your thoughts affect you both mentally and physically, then by practicing forgiveness you can teach yourself to think healing thoughts, rather than thoughts that make you ill or hinder your recovery.
Healing Takes A Holistic Path
Cancer and other chronic diseases are a strain on your mental and emotional well-being. But how you respond to this stress can dramatically impact your ability to heal and live beyond these health challenges.
I have seen first-hand the difference a positive outlook can have on a cancer journey. These clients often experience less side effects from treatment, they are better able to balance treatment with work and other activities, and they experience less ups and downs in their journey.
Building resilience, connecting with your life force, and healing past wounds will all support you on your healing journey.
As we learned in the beginning of this article these strategies can also make a big impact in keeping you healthy, preventing disease, or preventing recurrence.
As an Integrative Cancer Dietitian my role is to support clients holistically on their journey. Bringing awareness and targeted strategies to all factors that will support healing. Although I always start with diet, it doesn’t end there. Supporting emotional well-being and resilience is another important pillar of health and healing.
If you’re ready to approach your healing journey in a holistic way and gain the support & guidance of a trusted professional, the first step is to book a free 20-min “Planning Session”. During this session we will review your diet, your lifestyle, your treatment plan, and begin to map out your best recovery strategy.
Click here to book a 20-minute “Planning Session”.
Here are some Helpful Resources to help you gain more peace and inner calm on your journey towards greater emotional wellness:
- The Healing Mind: Fighting Cancer From Within
- Emotional Wellness: The Other Half of Treating Cancer
- Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds
- Guided Mindfulness Meditations with Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Health Journeys: Guided Meditations & Imagery
- Headspace: Meditation App
- Calm: Meditation and Sleep App
- Loving Meditations App for Cancer Patients & Caregivers
- Breathing Exercises