Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel under threat. When we sense danger (real or imagined) the body responds automatically – this process is known as the “fight or flight” response and is your body’s way of protecting you.
Stress may help you to stay focused, energetic, alert and motivated. However, beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and can have a negative impact upon your health, mood, productivity, relationships and overall quality of life. At the moment, you may be experiencing negative thoughts such as “I feel tense as I get my test results back next week”, “I can’t sleep or eat as I am worrying all the time”, “I worry about everything: my family, work, health. Even things that I used to enjoy doing before make me feel stressed now”.
Any diagnosis can be or feel like a threat to your body, your way of life or to your life itself. This can understandably lead to high levels of stress at certain times (for example when asked to come to hospital for an appointment or being admitted as an inpatient). For some people, the threat and consequences of a diagnosis can lead to feelings of stress which dominate much of their lives.
Common signs of stress:
- Inability to concentrate
- Focusing only upon the negatives
- Racing thoughts/constant worry
- Aches/muscular tension
- Eating more/less
- Sleeping more/less
- Using alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to relieve tension
It is easy for these kinds of experiences to lead to further stress. It then becomes difficult to break the cycle. For example, tension caused by stress can lead to concerns that stress symptoms are related to your condition, which in turn leads to more stress.
Stress and avoidance
Sometimes, stress can lead people to start avoiding things which they find difficult. For example, you might avoid going out because you are worried that you won’t cope if you feel unwell, or that people will stare at you. This makes good sense in the short term, as it protects you from stress. However, in the longer term, this may mean that you don’t learn that the things you are worried about don’t happen or if they do, are not as bad as you imagined. You also don’t learn that you are able to cope when things are difficult. Avoiding any situation which make you feel stressed can knock your confidence and lead to you avoiding more and more situations. Your world can end up “shrinking”. This can be another vicious circle:
Strategies to Manage Stress
While it is understandable that a lifelong health condition can cause stress and worry, there are many ways in which stress levels can be managed. These include:
- Using relaxation techniques (e.g., deep breathing, imagery)
- Using mindfulness techniques to focus your attention on the present moment whilst accepting it without judgement
- Setting yourself small challenges and increasing the challenge once you can cope with the previous one
- Eating a healthy diet
- Getting a good night’s sleep
Managing stress may help you to develop more helpful thoughts to help you cope e.g. “I didn’t realise how stressed out I’d become…once I did, I was able to make some changes in my life so that I could cope a bit better”, “waiting for test results is always a challenge, but at least now I feel that I have some strategies to help me cope with the worry.”
You can access guided relaxation exercises here http://bit.ly/Feeling_Stressed (please note this is a self-help website for people living with cancer but the resources can be applied to any long-term health condition)