Chronic Stress is serious business. It is not an abstract concept. Stress has serious physical consequences. The top two causes of death in the United States are heart disease and cancer. Both are stress related chronic diseases.
Stressors are those life circumstances that cause stress hormones to cascade throughout your body. A bolt of lightning and a crack of thunder startle you. Cortisol and adrenaline, the “stress” and the “fight or flight” hormones spike in your bloodstream. Muscles tense, your heart rate increases, and your rate of breathing increases. When you realize the danger is over, your body and mind relax and your heart rate returns to normal.
However, with chronic stress caused by long-term stressors –social pressures, financial pressures, a difficult family situation, a serious illness, etc. – the flow of stress hormones does not shut down.
Positive Thinking Reduces Stress by Eliminating Negative Self Talk
Self talk is the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head every day. The thoughts you dwell upon set your mood. Your mood determines which hormones are going to cascade through your body.
If the thoughts that you dwell upon are mostly negative, then your mood is most likely pessimistic and stressful. There is a mind-body connection. Stressful thoughts create stress related hormones which cause health consequences.
Prolonged high blood pressure caused by stress hormones result in heart disease and heart attacks. A chronically suppressed immune system caused by an unrelenting stream of stress hormones allows cancer to go undetected by immune cells. In addition to suppressing the immune system, stress hormones actually promote cancer growth. As explained by David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD in his book Anticancer:
“These hormones [cortisol and adrenaline] prepare the body for a potential wound, in part by stimulating the inflammation factors needed to repair tissue. At the same time, these hormones are also fertilizer for cancerous tumors, latent or already established. The discovery of the key role of inflammation in growing and spreading cancer is relatively recent.”
Dr. Servan-Schreiber explains that inflammation is necessary for tumors to fabricate blood vessels (angiogenesis). Without the proliferation of new blood vessels a cancerous tumor simply could not grow. It would remain a small harmless cluster of abnormal cells. Cortisol and adrenaline provide the inflammation necessary to stimulate the growth of blood vessels which cancer tumors must have to grow.
Positive thoughts and feelings of optimism play a protective role. An optimistic outlook and a feeling of emotional well-being halt the health hazards caused by a steady flow of stress hormones. Remember this important distinction, it’s not stress that causes ill-health. It is the unrelenting flow of stress hormones caused by chronic stress.
Being optimist or pessimist boils down to the way you talk to yourself. How you talk to yourself about a bad circumstance or event determines the health outcome.
A story is told of a psychologist who was holding a partially filled glass while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised the glass, everyone anticipated the question that would be asked: “half-empty or half-full?”, they thought.
Instead, with a smile on her face, the psychologist asked: “how heavy is this glass of water?”
Answers ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.
The instructor replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it out at arm’s length. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”
She continued, “The stress and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”
Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life
Positive thinking is definitely healthful. An optimistic outlook will shut off the flow of stress hormones. Medical studies have shown the connection between emotional well-being, inner peace, and a significantly lower risk of cancer relapse.
As long as stress hormones are present, your immune system will be suppressed. That is how your body is designed.
The first step in positive thinking is to be truthful with yourself. It is a fact of life that bad things happen to us – terrible things! Positive thinking does not mean you keep your head in the sand and ignore these circumstances.
It is just as stressful to keep up a performance of positivity and pretend to be upbeat all the time. What is positive about going through a divorce or being diagnosed with cancer? Nothing! This is not what you had planned for your life.
You need to be honest with yourself and at the same time find ways to direct your thinking away from dwelling on the negative.
For example, if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, of course you will experience the initial shock. Then you will have to determine your day to day reaction. You will need to control your self talk.
You have a choice. You can say to yourself: “I’ve got cancer, woe is me,” and then dwell on that kind of thinking. Or you can say to yourself: “I’ve got cancer, but I’ll get past it,” and then dwell on how you will get past it, “I’ll join a support group,” “I’ll make lifestyle changes,”. Begin to plan for positive outcomes and envision your role in creating these positive outcomes.
Emotions caused by chronic stress create stress hormones that continually flow in your body. These stress hormones suppress your immune system, help cancer cells grow, and cause health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, memory loss, and obesity.
You can control your mood and emotions by taking control of the thoughts you dwell upon.
An excellent illustration of this is taught in the following Cherokee legend:
One evening, an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, greed, and arrogance. The other is Good – It is peace, love, hope, humility, compassion, and faith. ” The grandson thought about this for a while and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” To which the old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Tips to Help Transform Your Thinking
- Change every negative thought, as it arises, into a positive thought. Don’t fight negative thoughts (they will pop up in your mind), just divert your attention to positive thoughts or positive mental images.
- Write down and keep a list of inspirational and uplifting quotes and read them several times a day.
- Repeat positive affirmations about yourself several times a day. Do this when you experience stress or fear. For a sample list of personal affirmations click here.
- Expand this list to at least 10 items.