Cancer-Related Stress: Understanding Stress and Coping Effectively
April 4, 2019
Mesothelioma thrusts cancer patients and their families into a whirlwind of stress.
The stress response to a cancer diagnosis is normal: Racing thoughts, fast heart rate, sweating, muscle tension and other physical and emotional changes. We refer to these initial stressful feelings as “acute stress.”
All humans possess an innate physical response to danger called the “fight or flight” response. Stress prompts us into action to fend off threats to our well-being.
But left unchecked, stress may become a long-term issue, called “chronic stress,” that has many negative health implications. It is important for cancer patients and their loved ones to understand the potential impacts of chronic stress and explore healthy coping strategies.
Sensory-based coping strategies can provide simple ways to refocus your attention away from stressful situations or negative thoughts.
Stress-Related Health Complications for Cancer Patients
Dealing with an aggressive cancer such as mesothelioma is overwhelming for most people. Patients may find themselves unable to continue working, spouses have to take on new roles as caregivers, and families struggle to establish a new normal that incorporates fighting cancer into their daily routines.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology asserts that dealing with cancer is likely one of a patient’s most stressful life events. Additional stressors — such as financial troubles, strained relationships and cancer treatment — may hinder a patient’s stress management capabilities.
Experiencing chronic stress negatively impacts the immune systems of cancer patients, making them more susceptible to additional health problems.
The National Institute of Mental Health published a fact sheet that further explores stress-related health complications. In addition to weakening the body’s immune system, stress also negatively impacts the digestive and cardiovascular systems.
Many people dealing with chronic stress experience sleep difficulties, headaches and gastrointestinal symptoms. Additionally, stress has negative effects on patients’ emotional well-being, exacerbating feelings of sadness and anger.
Taking Back Your Control
The first step toward taking back control from life’s stressors is to recognize when stress becomes unhealthy. Then you can evaluate your family’s situation to explore small ways to reduce stress.
Acute stress is a completely normal response to the initial diagnosis of cancer. But when heightened levels of stress become part of a patient or family member’s daily routine, the stress escalates to a chronic condition.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology website presents several tips for cancer patients about managing stress.
- Appointment/Activity Scheduling: Families can be overwhelmed with doctor appointments and well-intended visits from friends and relatives. Scheduling just one appointment per day, or having designated “visit days” and a specific “fun activity day,” may help reduce stress.
- Delegating Tasks: Caregivers experience stress as they assume their new role while simultaneously maintaining their other household duties. Delegating small tasks to other family members and friends can reduce the amount of work for the primary caregiver.
- Shifting Focus: Constant worrying leads to heightened levels of anxiety. Redirecting your focus to tangible, productive tasks can help reduce stress. Focus on problems that you can solve.
Finding balance while dealing with mesothelioma can increase your resiliency. It is important to discuss how you feel with your oncology team. Doctors and nurses can help identify the right resources and support to help patients and caregivers maintain their physical and emotional well-being.
Using Sensory-Based Coping Strategies to Manage Stress
Aside from making small changes to reduce exposure to stressors, cancer patients and their families can also implement adaptive coping strategies. These are techniques and activities used during and after exposure to stress to help reduce its negative impact.
There is a wide range of coping and relaxation techniques, so most people explore several. As a therapist, I help others find the strategies that work best to build their resiliency and decrease their stress.
Some of the most effective adaptive coping strategies I teach in counseling include sensory-based techniques. These coping skills appeal to the senses to shift a person’s focus away from a stressful situation or negative thoughts and toward a here-and-now sensory experience.
Ideas for Exploring Sensory-Based Coping Strategies
- Visual: Many people find it relaxing to leaf through old photo albums, read books and magazines, or create works of art by drawing or painting.
- Olfactory: Aromatherapy is a well-known strategy to assist with relaxation. A comforting scent from a wax warmer, lotion or essential oil may help decrease stress.
- Gustatory: Sometimes tasting something can take us to another place. Actively attending to the sensory experience of a familiar or comforting flavor can be relaxing.
- Tactile: Having a hands-on sensory experience can be very relaxing. Some useful tactile sensory resources include stress balls, puzzle cubes and putty.
Personalizing the experience is imperative when developing sensory-based coping strategies for managing your stress. For example, a person experiencing nausea might not be open to exploring olfactory-based strategies. Similarly, if a person has hearing difficulties, auditory strategies might not be as effective.
Remember, a coping strategy shouldn’t be difficult to use or expensive. It helps to be open to new experiences and have several options from which to choose.