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Modern medicine attributes the development of cancer to changes in DNA that reduce or eliminate the normal controls over cellular growth and programmed cell death. A growing number of people are willing to accept the fact that environmental toxins and radiation exposure are involved in the development of cancer. Western research even supports the idea that depression can impair immune system function – the first line of defense against cancer.
However, rarely has emotional stress been considered particularly relevant to the cancer process by conventional medicine.
Traditional Chinese Medicine’s View of Emotional Stress and Cancer
While Western medicine may not recognize it, the idea that emotional distress can contribute to the development of cancer has been known since ancient times in China. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) considers that all internal or chronic diseases are caused by the seven major emotions ? anger, shock, joy, fear, brooding, anxiety, and sorrow.
The Traditional Chinese medical view of cancer etiology (etiology means cause), which evolved over many centuries, acknowledges the impact of genetic alterations and environmental toxins as contributors to the disease. However, TCM understands that while there are many reasons for cancer, one of the main causes is emotions.
TCM points to emotional contributions to the development of cancer. In particular, it considers depression (as in repressed anger), grief (usually because of death of a loved one), and anxiety (worry and fearfulness, and excess circular thinking ? lots of ideas hanging around) to be major contributing factors.
TCM attributes this to stagnated energy. If the stagnation continues, it may eventually present itself as a tumor or some other type of excessive cellular activity. The belief has been that the human body is susceptible to cancer when under emotional stress or disturbance.
As cited in the Internet Journal of the Institute for Traditional Medicine and Preventive Health Care, a Ming Dynasty text by the surgeon Chen Shigong (1555-1636 AD) indicated that breast cancer “results from anxiety, emotional depression, and overthinking which impairs the liver, spleen, and heart and causes the obstruction of the channels.”
This theory is mentioned in other Chinese medical classics, such as Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine and Golden Mirror of Original Medicine.
Numerous interim and current studies have found the same thing. For example, a 2016 Chinese study found that psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, and depression can be considered predictors of breast cancer risk.
How Emotional Stress Alters Your Genes
There is also the fledgling field of “psychoneuroimmunology.” This is the study of how psychological states, as detected in activity of the nervous system, impact the immune system.
Psychoneuroimmunology involves the connection between the brain, the peripheral nervous system, and the body. It suggests that emotional stress increases a person’s susceptibility to cancer by altering the genes that control the stress response.
Mechanisms by which emotions can promote the cancer process include raising stress hormones that lower immune functions and alter the metabolism of hormones and environmental toxins.
In short, the theory is that our stressed-out brains send signals to our adrenal glands to produce stress hormones. In turn, these stress hormones trigger cancerous activity such as the production of free radicals (DNA damage), inflammation, impaired cancer cell death, and stimulation of growth factors that can promote tumor cell growth. Once a tumor has formed, emotional stress then contributes to the progression of the disease.
The Sympathetic Nervous System and the “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” Response
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the primary system involved in the fight, flight, or freeze response. This response mechanism is hard-wired into the nervous system as a way to respond to pain or stress, including the stress from anger.
We can run from something, fight against it, or freeze up in the moment, but as long as we are exposed to a danger (either real or implied), we will remain in that mode, rendering endless damage to our physical and emotional health.
Numerous studies have shown that the SNS, when chronically activated, can actually promote the development and spread of cancer. This is because the adrenaline and noradrenaline-stimulating mechanisms within it can alter the genetic code, degrading DNA and setting off a cascade of pro-cancer processes.
Emotional Stress Modifies Genes: the “New” Western View
Until recently, there seemed to be only a causal relationship between stress and dis-ease, at least in Western medicine. However, recent studies have shown that repressed emotional traumas actually affect our DNA, and thankfully, more researchers and medical practitioners are taking notice. Importantly, it is now acknowledged that the mind-body connection to cancer is not a philosophy; it is a biological fact.
Environmental influences, such as stress and emotions, modify genes. As mentioned above, there are a number of factors that alter cells. Notably, these are the same psychological stresses as chronicled in TCM. These can include inescapable shock, repressed feelings, grief, depression, isolation, emotional trauma, and external conflict.
To be clear, while toxic emotions do not actually change our genes, they do set off a surge of cellular changes resulting in cancer. Continued degradation of the epigenetic structure of our genes leads to impaired immunity and increased susceptibility to cellular mutation.
In other words, while our DNA is locked in at conception, emotional factors can precipitate a chemical reaction within our body that can permanently alter the way our genes react.
For example, in breast cancer, the gene that normally inhibits the growth of tumors (the p53 gene) is shut down with negative experiences while other genes that promote the spread of cancer are turned on (such as the Bcl2 gene).
Cancer Stem Cells and Emotional Stress
Another very important point is that cancer stem cells (CSCs) are stimulated to regroup and grow by inflammatory factors related to various stressors on the body ? including toxic emotions. (Cancer stem cells are the only cancer cells that can metastasize, and they are often resistant to standard chemotherapeutic drugs as well as radiotherapy). This is yet another reason emotional stress is undoubtedly a major cause of cancer and its recurrence.
While one disappointment is not likely going to give you cancer, chronic emotional stress will certainly increase your risk of cancer and its recurrence.
Given that it is quite clear that emotional distress can contribute to the development of diseases such as cancer, it is important to reduce its adverse impacts on health. It is not always easy to manage our anger, but it is important to find constructive outlets for it.
Learning to control emotional stress is clearly important for the prevention of cancer as well as the progression of the disease.
How to Minimize Emotional Stress
At this time, there is not a magic pill that can free the mind from all of life’s atrocities. However, deep breathing calms a heightened sympathetic nervous system responsible for fight or flight and relaxes the body. Exercise, a healthy diet, and pursuing mind-calming activities such as yoga, meditation, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), psychotherapy, Reiki, Qi gong, music therapy, and TCM can all be helpful.
Mental exhaustion is harmful and life responsibilities should be offset with entertainment and laughter. Striving to develop a healthy focus on life, spending time with friends and family, and embracing a sense of gratefulness will not only lower your risk of cancer but will make you a much happier and healthier person… whether it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month or not.
Disclaimer: This is not a medical advice and may not reflect opinion of GQ and it’s staff.