By Annette Pinder

There is no question that stress makes our bodies more prone to cancer, according to Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, professor of General Oncology and Behavioral Science, and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson. Cohen says that while short-term stress, like how you might feel before taking an exam, subsides fairly quickly, long-term chronic stress due to situations that last weeks or months with little possibility for resolution, is much more damaging.

Anil K. Sood, M.D., professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at MD Anderson says “no-end-in-sight stress” can weaken your immune system, leaving you prone to diseases like cancer, and increases your risk for digestive problems and depression.

According to Sood, chronic stress can help cancer grow and spread through stress hormones that can inhibit a process called anoikis, which kills diseased cells and prevents them from spreading. Chronic stress also increases the production of certain growth factors that increase your blood supply to speed development of cancerous tumors.

While removing causes of stress is the ideal answer, that’s not always possible, according to Cohen. Still, he says, “You can learn to manage it to prevent stress from lingering to a point where it affects your health.” He shares the following stress-reducing strategies.

Talk to a professional.

A psychiatrist or psychologist can teach you healthy ways to manage your stress. Cohen says, “This may include talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help uncover the connections in your brain between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that can screw up your immune system and increase your disease risks.”

Practice meditation or yoga.

Mindfulness meditation and yoga are proven to combat stress, and improve your mood and life-quality. These practices can help your brain soften the links between your thoughts, emotions, and unhealthy biological changes. Cohen suggests aiming for two 20-minute periods a day of relaxation techniques. Sitting quietly in a safe place, like your garden, helps.

Get adequate sleep.

“Getting eight hours of sleep each night is a great defense against stress,” Cohen says. Why? A full night of sleep is essential to proper immune function. It also affects your mood, memory, and ability to focus.” Cohen says, “Sticking to a regular sleep schedule, avoiding TV in bed, and exercising regularly can all help you sleep more soundly.

Take stress seriously.

Cohen emphasizes the importance of understanding the negative consequences of stress, especially regarding cancer risks, warning that stress is not something anyone in our society should take lightly. “If you feel crankier than usual, you don’t have the energy you once had, or you’re sleeping poorly, all of those could be signs of stress, so take steps to fix your problem before it affects your health in more serious ways,” says Cohen.

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