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The Stress-Disease Connection

Although most physicians agree that emotions play a role in the aggravation of existing physical disorders, it is not widely accepted that emotions actually cause the physical disorder. An entire field of science called psychoneuroimmunology studies the effects of emotions on the nervous and immunological systems functions.

Our bodies get diseased when stressful feelings are not expressed. When one is chronically stressed, as when feeling any intense ‘negative’ emotion such as sadness, anxiety and anger, increased amounts of stress hormones such as cortisol are released.

Stress can come in the form of fear, uncertainty, lack of control, helplessness and even lack of information which all raise stress-related molecules. Levels especially increase when the basic needs for protection, support, love and emotional fulfillment are not met.

Prolonged periods of elevated levels of stress molecules cause arteries to stiffen (arteriosclerosis) and increase the occurrences of fatigue, colds, bronchitis, congestions, cancers, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Researcher Robert Anda noted that the cumulative, long-term and invasive effects of stressful or traumatic events are “likely to be invisible to health care providers, educators, social service organizations, and policy makers because the linkage between cause and effect is concealed by time.”

With regards to breast cancer, epidemiologic evidence in the area of stress and breast cancer outlines several trends. Firstly, the stress most strongly associated with increased breast cancer risk appears to be stress induced by major life events, whereas findings regarding work-related, caregiving, or everyday stress vary considerably.

Interesting to note is that the timing of stress exposure also has an effect on breast cancer risk, with early life stress exhibiting the strongest association with breast cancer. When children are raised in dysfunctional (abusive, controlling) households, they are not emotionally supported, are not taught how to diffuse the stress and thus, suppress toxic emotions, and eventually shut down emotionally.  Many of us were not taught how to be resilient.

Regardless of the dysfunction, the results are immediate and also create long-lasting emotional and psychological suffering. Jung noted that the enduring emotional impact of childhood neglect and wounding “remains hidden all along from the [person], so that not reaching consciousness, the emotion never wears itself out, it is never used up.”

Resilient people acknowledge and express feelings without being overwhelmed by them. They also exhibit personality traits that strengthen their ability to cope such as believing in the importance of what they are doing; believing that they have some power to influence or control their situation; and viewing life’s changes as positive opportunities rather than as threats.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.