I recently got into a car accident and totaled my car. It was snowing out and the roads were bad, slippery and a white wash of a mess. I must have been driving too fast because I was stressed about being late for my next patient and then boom! I hit a pole. I realized that the last few months I had been taxing my body, stressed since Christmas time and have had very low energy. I had given up doing yoga, totally forgotten about meditation, and was more focused on managing my family and their activities, my work, and my work out at the gym. Basically, I had let the ball go on my real health and I had let the stress of life take over. I realized I had to get back on track and DE-STRESS.
A few days ago, a young woman came into my Acupuncture office at the cancer hospital I work at. I am lucky enough to be an employee of St. Vincent’s Hospital where I work in the oncology wing. She is not even 32 years old and has stage 4 breast cancer. The doctors said it had spread everywhere. I was very surprised. She ate relatively well, didn’t have a history of breast cancer in her family, and she had just had a baby a year ago. I asked her why she thought she had such late stage cancer. Lately, I have been asking patients why they think they are having their illness and they have been able to basically answer their own questions which has been helping them get to the root of their problems. For example, why do you think you have headaches? I hate my job. Why do you think you have gastritis? I stress eat. Why do you think you have back pain? I’m overwhelmed with my financial responsibilities. So she told me that she has been very stressed out, that she is taking care of 4 kids under 4, 2 of them her sisters’ kids, and that the stress has been extreme. She knew that she needed to ask for help but didn’t want to burden anyone else. So here is what I explained to her.
We are all susceptible to cancer cells, and our immune system is responsible for killing these abnormal cells. When the immune system doesn’t kill these cells, they accumulate into a tumor. Cancer and other illnesses develop when our immune system is not functioning adequately. So why doesn’t our immune system function properly all of the time? What many people may not realize is that our bodies have two states. Our bodies either think we are running away from a hungry tiger (the sympathetic nervous system) or picking berries and enjoying life (the parasympathetic nervous system). Even if we are rushing to catch a train, our body thinks we are running away from a tiger. When our kids are not listening to us and we get stressed out and yell, our body thinks we are running from a tiger. So what happens to our body when we run from a tiger? We release cortisol, our immune system becomes weakened due to the cortisol hormone, and our reproductive system gets put on hold so that our bodies can address the stress first.
While there are varying degrees of stress and relaxation, there are still two different states. Our home base should be the parasympathetic nervous system while only using our sympathetic nervous system in emergencies. For instance, we shouldn’t stress about being late to work and rush ourselves everyday, but we should stress if someone is in danger and we need to act immediately. When healing from cancer, it’s imperative our immune system is ON ON ON! The immune system has amazing cells such as white blood cells, B cells and T cells. In fact, more people are using Immunotherapy to treat their cancer, allowing their own immune system to kill their cancer cells. Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system is vital to not only recovering from illness, but preventing it as well.
Working in a cancer hospital, I see people recover from Stage IV cancer, and I see some people pass to the other side from lesser stages of cancer. There are several factors when it comes to surviving cancer, like the right medical therapy, nutrition, and whatever else you believe you need to rid your body of cancer. Combating stress is more important than we might think for the reasons I just shared.
So how do we put a red light on for our sympathetic nervous system and a green light on for our parasympathetic nervous system? Here are five ways that are more accessible than living in a Tibetan monastery and 5 things I promised to myself that I will include weekly and some of them daily.
- Acupuncture. Obviously, this is one of my favorite ways because it forces your system to switch to the parasympathetic nervous system with the help of your Acupuncturist. Those tiny needles send messages to your body to “rest and digest”. Many of my patients will hear their stomachs rumble during a session and say, “I just ate!”. This is their digestive system relaxing and actually digesting food, helping the food move through the intestines.
- Meditation. This is my second favorite because once you learn it, you can use it anytime you want to. I go into a meditative state now whenever I have minute.
- Rest your eyes. Just lowering your eyelids half way or more will communicate to your body that you can relax. When your eyes are wide open and searching for something, that’s when your body thinks you’re running from a tiger.
- Take a deep breath! It may sound basic, but if you are taking a nice, deep breath, your body recognizes that as a sign that you are relaxing.
- Stretch mindfully. You have to relax your muscles to stretch and that relaxation tells your brain you are not stressed! Yoga is definitely one of the best ways to stretch mindfully.
Most of us think stress is harmless. We stress out when we are late to an appointment, can’t find our keys, miss a phone call, but stress is directly linked to inflammation, which is linked to cancer. So as they say, “Stay Calm and Carry on!”