Regaining Control Through Mindful Living

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve really enjoyed the Coursera course, “Engineering Health: Introduction to Yoga and Physiology“, which I highly recommend. One of the recurring themes of the class that I’ve found particularly relevant is that of effecting incremental and meaningful epigenetic change through yoga and meditation.

The class lectures went through the physiological mechanisms by which this happens, and this information would be reason enough to incorporate mindfulness and breath-to-movement in one’s life. But for someone who’s experienced cancer, there’s something even more important: a sense of control.

For me, the most terrifying part of my cancer diagnosis was the lack of control over what was happening to me. First, my body had turned on me by cultivating a tumor, the ultimate goal of which was to take over my organs and kill me. Then, my doctors were giving me drugs that by design would kill certain parts of me, with the intention of taking out the tumor before it spread to really important parts of me (brain? liver? heart?).

My body was a battleground in the war between my rogue cells and modern medicine. I had to sit there and take collateral damage if I wanted a chance at survival.

Disclaimer: So I feel the need to stress here that we do not yet know how to reliably prevent the formation of cancerous tumors, but there are things that we can do to greatly lessen the risk. I’m willing to bet that managing stress would have a powerful impact on prevention.

While I did begin meditation at that time, had I started learning to deal with my anxiety and accompanying physiological responses years ago, I might have been able to sidestep the disease. There is science to this which I will cover in a later post, but my doctors *hate* it when I postulate possible causes of my tumor since if we could truly pinpoint the cause, we’d be able to cure the disease. However, given what we do know about stress and inflammation, I can guarantee that my stress response did not help in keeping me cancer-free!

In the Coursera class, Dr. Ali Seidenstein (NYU) explains, among other things, how the small positive changes that arise from learning to control the stress response by applying yoga and meditation affect your genetics. And this is key. While you’re born with a certain set of genes, the science of epigenetics describes how you can affect gene activity (think, turning a gene on or off) and thereby have a different outcome from someone else with the same gene.

Finally! Something that *I* can do that provides a rare sense of control in an uncontrollable situation! For a cancer survivor, this offers a nugget of hope to hold on to in the face of continuing medications that may or may not help your survival. Medicine is tested on a variety of individuals but there’s no guarantee that their success will translate into your own (news flash: cancer = no guarantees, period). But knowing that you can engage in behaviors that, when applied over time, will actually benefit you on a genetic level…that, my friends, is priceless.

A New View of Stress That Can Save Your Life

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a history of not handling stress well.

A recent PubMed search on the connection between stress and proliferation of cancer didn’t help, as I found sufficient evidence to show that the two may be closely linked, and that is a disconcerting thought for a cancer survivor. Finding ways to relieve everyday stress has become one of my highest priorities. But would I be better served by focusing on stress as a positive force?

In her 2013 TED Talk, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal offers a new view of stress, not as a horrible experience, but instead as a state that primes your body for better dealing with hardships.

This is a novel and intelligent way of looking at something that, unfettered, could otherwise harm us. Why not turn it into a positive instead?

McGonigal points out that our attitude towards stress is critically important. A study from the University of Wisconsin (Keller et al., 2012, Health Psychol) demonstrated that people who experienced high levels of stress and were convinced that stress was harmful to their health were 43% (!) more likely to die during the eight-year study period. Note, these are correlational (not causational) findings, although it was striking how that belief predicted an earlier demise.

McGonigal describes research at Harvard (Jamieson et al., 2012, J Exp Psychol Gen) to discover whether changing someone’s attitude about stress can change their response to it. The study was designed to invoke anxiety in the subjects via a “social stress test”. But one group of participants was primed with information about how sensations associated with anxiety were actually beneficial for their performance: pounding heart = preparing the body for action; breathing faster = getting more oxygen to the brain for clearer thought.

Test subjects taught to reappraise their responses reacted differently to the stressors than might have been predicted. They felt energized, more confident and ready for the challenge. But what was even more surprising was that their physiological response was more positive, because they didn’t experience the tightening of blood vessels commonly associated with chronic stress and thereby with cardiovascular disease. Rather, the blood vessels stayed relaxed, as happens during periods of “joy and courage.”

What if effectively dealing with stress is as simple as changing the way you view it?

This is a much healthier physiological reaction. As McGonigal puts it, “How you think about stress matters.” It may make the difference between a long life and an early death.

McGonigal goes on to describe another positive benefit of a healthy stress response: the release of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, which results in people seeking out social support during times of stress. Says McGonigal, “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how to you feel, instead of bottling it up.” In addition, this results in an increase of empathy so that you are more likely to help someone else who’s experiencing stress.

Further, oxytocin acts as an anti-inflammatory and protects the heart from potential negative effects of stress.

But most telling is a study (Poulin et al., 2013, Am J Public Health) that examined the connection between high levels of stress, risk of dying and amount of time that people spent supporting those around them. As might be expected given the above information,”people who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. …Caring created resilience.”

For me, McGonigal’s talk stood my belief about stress on its head. Can I learn to view the stress response differently? Yes, I believe I can. And what about social support? That is the path my life is taking: finding a more meaningful existence though supporting others.

This is a “win-win” of the highest degree.