When I teach my “Detox Your Life” courses, one thing that often surprises people is that I consider negative thoughts, stress, and repressed emotions as “toxins.”
Most people expect they’ll learn how to reduce toxins in their food, like preservatives, dyes, and additives. They know I’ll talk about harsh ingredients in personal care products, like formaldehyde, toluene, and 1,4-dioxane. They’re not surprised when I recommend they watch out for furniture with flame-retardants, that they dust and vacuum frequently to get rid of toxins in the home, and that they stop using synthetic air fresheners.
But when I start talking about a “detox lifestyle” that encompasses daily rituals to flush out negative emotions, ease stress, and encourage positive thoughts, sometimes they look confused.
Could these things really be detrimental to their health?
To which I answer a hearty “yes!”
This is breast cancer month, and we’ve been talking about prevention, self-care, and ways to reduce your risk of recurrence. Now it’s time that we completed the circle, and talk about the one area we can’t afford to neglect-the mind, or what we may think of as the “self.”
Studies Show Our Emotions Affect Our Health
That our thoughts and emotions can influence our health has been shown in a number of studies. Here’s just a glimpse at a few:
- A study by Rainville and colleagues found that negative emotions and thoughts increased pain sensations.
- A 2009 review of 13 studies found that participants who were stressed were more likely to experience inadequate reactions to a flu vaccine (indicating a depressed immune system) than those who weren’t stressed.
- Thomsen et al., in a 2004 study, stated, “The way a person copes with stress has been suggested to be of importance for both mental and physical health.”
- A 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that chronic stress changes gene activity of immune cells, leading to increased inflammation.
- The American Psychological Association (APA) states that chronic stress can cause disease, “either because of changes in your body or the overeating, smoking and other bad habits people use to cope with stress.” They add that job stress and depression are associated with increased risk of heart disease.
- Stress and fear result in the adrenal glands flooding the body with cortisol, which dampens the immune system and disrupts a number of body systems, increasing risk of digestive problems, insomnia, weight gain, memory impairment, heart disease, and depression.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Stress and how we handle it can have a big impact on our health-and on our risk for cancer.
Can Stress and Negative Emotions Cause Cancer?
Though we can’t say yet with authority that stress can cause cancer, we do have a number of studies showing that it can create the right conditions for it.
In 2013, for example, researchers reported that when we’re stressed, we activate the ATF3 gene, which usually protects us by causing damaged cells to die. But in the study, cancer cells were able to switch on the ATF3 gene in immune cells that were on their way to tumor sites-causing those immune cells to malfunction and allow the cancer cells to escape.
“If your body does not help cancer cells, they cannot spread as far,” said senior author Tsonwin Hai. “So really, the rest of the cells in the body help cancer cells to move, to set up shop at distant sites. And one of the unifying themes here is stress.”
An earlier 2004 study found that women with major live events, daily stress, and depression had 3.7 times higher the risk for breast cancer, compared to those who didn’t experience that type of stress.
And a 2010 study showed that chronic stress acts as a “sort of fertilizer that feeds breast cancer progression, significantly accelerating the spread of the disease,” according to researchers.
The Stress is Always There
We don’t have all the answers yet, but we can see from these and other studies that stress, ruminating over bad things that happen to us, feeling negatively about things, and other similar modes of behavior can act as dangerous toxins to our systems, and over time, can result in health problems.
It starts in the morning. Maybe you didn’t sleep well, so you wake up tired-already, your hormones are out of whack. You drink coffee to compensate, sending a caffeine jolt into your system. Maybe the kids were late getting out of bed. You have to rush to get them to school. That means you don’t get a good, healthy breakfast, and you’ve already got stress hormones pumping through your bloodstream.
It’s been only two hours, and already you have flooded your body, mind, and spirit with a ton of toxins! Negative emotions, stress, fear, anxiety, frustration, maybe even anger. These all tax your body, throw your hormones out of balance, deplete your immune system, and leave you emotionally ill equipped to deal with the rest of the day.
Of course we can’t expect that our lives will be stress-free. What we need to do, instead, is adopt regular techniques that we can use on a daily basis that help us to process these emotions, flush them out of our system, and get our heads in the right place, so to speak.
5 Ways to Eliminate Emotional Toxins
You likely have your own ways to deal with stress. Here are seven of my favorites. If you have others that really work, share them with our readers!
This is one of the best ways to counteract the effect stress has on the body. Consider these study results:
- A study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health found that moderate exercise can help people cope with anxiety and stress for an extended period of time even after the workout is over.
- According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): “When stress affects the brain, with its many nerve connections, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. If your body feels better, so does your mind. Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins-chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers-and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.”
- A 2013 study from Princeton University found that physical activity reorganizes the brain so that its response to stress is reduced and anxiety is less likely to interfere with normal brain function.
- The American Psychological Association notes that exercise improves mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress. They add that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people.
- A 2010 study from the University of California, San Francisco, found that exercise buffered the effects of stress-induced cell aging.
There are a number of other studies touting the stress-relieving benefits of exercise. Think back to the last time you worked out, went for a walk, or did some dancing. How did you feel? How long did those good feelings last?
There are a lot of benefits to yoga, but one of them is stress relief. I know that after I finish my practice I feel stronger, more centered, and more accepting of myself.
The Mayo Clinic notes that yoga can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and improve heart function, and that “a number of studies have shown that yoga can help reduce stress and anxiety.”
A 2012 study showed that yoga helped reduce the stress levels of people caring for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. And a 2014 study even showed that poses like the downward dog could help reduce levels of inflammation and fatigue in cancer patients.
There’s something about getting your feelings out onto a piece of paper (or computer document) that has a healing effect. A study of students with ah history of trauma, for example, showed that the act of writing improved their physical symptoms.
Another study found that cancer patients who wrote about their feelings prior to treatment reported an improved physical quality of life. Participants said that journaling helped them gain some distance so they could reflect on what had happened, and that they felt calmer and more able to move on after writing about it.
Study after study has shown that regular meditation is one of the best ways to cope with stress and negative events in our lives. In a recent article in the Washington Post, the reporter interviewed Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
She stated that in their studies on people who had never meditated before, and who they put through an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program, actually thickened their brain in four regions, including the amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain that is important in how we experience fear, stress, and anxiety. That area actually got smaller in those who meditated-and the change correlated with a reduction in stress levels.
Trust me-it’s worth a try, even if you start with only 10 minutes a day of quietly sitting and letting your thoughts come and go without reaction.
5. Spend time with the right people.
Over the last decade or so, scientists have discovered the power of the social circle-to either make you healthier, or not.
Here’s some evidence:
- A 2006 study of 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease than women with 10 or more friends.
- A 2013 study found that meeting with friends twice a week greatly improved men’s physical health and well being. Those who maintained social groups were healthier, recuperated from sickness more quickly, and were better able to ward off depression.
- A 2008 study involving identical twins found that the siblings with tight-knit social circles were healthier than their counterparts who didn’t feel as connected to their communities, despite their very similar DNA and upbringing.
- A pair of studies published in 2008 found that social connections can reduce the chances of developing dementia.
It’s not just friends that are important, though. You need the right kind of friends-those who will support you and help you feel better, not worse.
A 2012 study found, for example, that negative social interaction increases inflammation in the body. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that participants who reported more negative or competitive social interactions (with their roommates, in this case), were more likely to have a significantly higher level of “cytokine” in their bodies-a proinflammatory protein.
“There’s a lot of research showing that when we are stressed out,” said Jessica Chiang, author of the report, “it activates all these biological systems. And interpersonal stressors are often the biggest stressors people experience in their daily lives.”
The key here is that your social interactions matter. Friends, family, colleagues-how you interact with them all can either help bring you up or down. It can also mean the difference between a long and healthy life, or one cut short by disease.
How do you cope with negative emotions and stress? Please share your tips.
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Rainville P, et al., “Pain-related emotions modulate experimental pain perception and autonomic responses,” Pain, December 5, 2015; 118(3):306-18, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16289802.
Pedersen AF, et al., “Psychological stress and antibody response to influenza vaccination: a meta-analysis,” Brain Behav Immun., May 2009; 23(4):427-33, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19486657.
Thomsen DK, et al., “Negative thoughts and health: associations among rumination, immunity, and health care utilization in a young and elderly sample,” Psychosom Med., May-Jun 2004; 66(3):363-71, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15184696.
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Kim Irwin, “Stress significantly accelerates breast cancer metastasis in mice, study shows for the first time,” UCLA, September 17, 2010, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/stress-significantly-accelerates-171844.
Morgan Kelly, “Exercise reorganizes the brain to be more resilient to stress,” Princeton University, July 3, 2013, http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S37/28/70Q72/.
Mayo Clinic Staff, “Yoga: Fight stress and find serenity,” Mayo Clinic, February 12, 2015, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/yoga/art-20044733.
Mark Wheeler, “Yoga reduces stress; now it’s known why,” UCLA, July 24, 2012, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/yoga-reduces-stress-now-it-s-known-236785.
Susan Brink, “New Study Shows Yoga Has Healing Powers, “National Geographic, February 8, 2014, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140207-yoga-cancer-inflammation-stress/.
Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, et al., “Yoga’s Impact on Inflammation, Mood, and Fatigue in Breast Cancer Survivors: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” American Society of Clinical Oncology, January 27, 2014; doi:10.1200/JCO.2013.51.8860, http://jco.ascopubs.org/content/early/2014/01/21/JCO.2013.51.8860.abstract.
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Brigid Schulte, “Harvard Neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain,” Washington Post, May 26, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/.
Candyce H. Kroenke, et al., “Social Networks, Social Support, and Survival After Breast Cancer Diagnosis,” American Society of Clinical Oncology, March 1, 2006; 24(7):1105-1111, http://jco.ascopubs.org/content/24/7/1105.full.
Ryan Kisiel, “To be a happy chap, see your pals twice a week: Men’s wellbeing depends on meeting up with friends and ‘doing stuff,’” Daily Mail, October 20, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2469485/Mens-wellbeing-depends-meeting-friends.html.
Steve Mitchell, “Your health depends on friends and neighbors,” NBC News, June 17, 2008; http://www.nbcnews.com/id/25192829/ns/health-behavior/t/your-health-depends-friends-neighbors/#.VhMRk2SrRFQ.
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