the impact of stress on medical intervention

If stress really is just a state of mind then perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the powerful role our thoughts play in the health of both mind and body. What we think about and how this makes us feel suddenly becomes very poignant.

Stress pops up everywhere. A little stress can be helpful to keep us focused and motivated as well as impressing upon us the perceived importance of some of the things we think about and experience. Too much stress for prolonged periods can create adverse reactions inside the body which suppress our immune system. Our body’s natural programming allows us to cope with day-to-day stress and helps us to find ways to manage stressful situations. Often, we learn to manage stress instinctively without registering that we are in fact in a state of stress. This can lead to health problems if a build-up of stress-affected physiology is untreated and memorised at a molecular level.

People who are seriously ill can suffer compound stress due to the nature and suggestibility of their condition and its perceived outcomes. For cancer patients, stress can be experienced pre-diagnosis, upon diagnosis and prognosis, again when debilitating treatments are prescribed and also during interventions like surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It’s at times like these that we really need the body’s relaxation responses triggered to boost our immune system. So often though, it’s the conditions of ill-health which instinctively activate our stress response which compromises our immunity even further. So, what if it was possible for us to change this cycle of response, train our relaxation response to override the onset of stress, and improve recovery rates?

Findings from a study conducted in 2011 at the University of Miami’s Centre for Psycho-Oncology Research, led by Professor Michael H. Antoni1, revealed how stress management therapy helped a group of cancer patients during treatment. This study was one of the first to link psychological intervention with genetic expression and showed how Cognitive Behavioural Stress Management (CBSM), as a group-based intervention, had affected tumour-promoting processes at a molecular level. It found that genes in the cells of the immune system were turned on and off and in ways that may facilitate better recovery during treatment for breast cancer. A CBSM program was developed to combine relaxation, imagery, and deep breathing with cognitive behaviour therapy. The program was designed to help patients reduce bodily tension, change the way they dealt with intrusive and stressful thoughts, decrease negative moods, and improve interpersonal communication skills. In the study, 199 women undergoing primary treatment for stage III breast cancer were randomised into a ten-week CBSM program or a psycho-educational control group in the weeks following surgery. Six-month and 12-month follow-up assessments were conducted. For the women in the CBSM groups, there was better psychological adaptation to the whole process of going through treatment for breast cancer and there were physiological changes that indicated that the women were recovering better. The results suggest that stress management intervention mitigated the influence of the stress of cancer treatment and promoted recovery over the first year.

Perhaps this approach could be just as effective if used, adapted or refined for use in the treatment of all cancers, disease, serious illness, pain management and injury. It would be amazing to consider that a new approach to how we think about disease could create a much more relaxed change in the chemical physiology of our cells. This could help to boost the immune system and optimise timely health and performance outcomes as we open up to embrace, learn, adapt and apply new ways to focus the mind to condition the body back to health.


1 Michael H. Antoni, Susan K. Lutgendorf, Bonnie Blomberg, Charles S. Carver, Suzanne Lechner, Alain Diaz, Jamie Stagl, Jesusa M.G. Arevalo, Steven W. Cole. Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Management Reverses Anxiety-Related Leukocyte Transcriptional DynamicsBiological Psychiatry, 2012; 71 (4): 366 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.10.007