If you have been diagnosed with cancer, receiving real support from people who care is as important for your healing as good nutrition, eliminating toxins, and plugging in to the right cancer-healing modalities and protocols. In fact, being a part of a network of caring family members, friends, neighbors, community members, and health care professionals can turn on the “relaxation response.” The healing power of the relaxation response is backed by both psychological and physiological research.
The Relaxation Response is the Opposite of the “Stress Response”
There are tangible biological and hormonal shifts that happen in the body when a person feels supported on their journey with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. You have probably heard of the “stress response” (also called the “fight or flight” response).
This is a cascade of stress-related hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that the brain puts out when the limbic system (the primal part of the brain) is triggered by a real or “imagined” threat. When stress becomes chronic, cortisol levels stay high. This causes many functions of the immune system to shut down, resulting in less Natural Killer Cell production, higher glucose levels, and a higher inflammatory response − all making the body ripe for cancer to take hold and spread.
But did you know that the opposite is also true? When the body is calm, the relaxation response becomes activated. The limbic system goes into “hibernation mode,” allowing the healing activities of the parasympathetic nervous system to activate.
The immune system kicks into high gear and begins doing its job of hunting out and eliminating pathogens. Natural Killer Cells are produced in abundance and the body detoxifies and heals itself on the deepest levels. Feel good substances such as endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin are released, which not only add to a “happy vibe,” but also play their own protective and healing roles within the immune system.
Why You Need the Support of Friends and Family
How does the relaxation response relate to the need for support during a cancer crisis? Because humans are social beings. When we feel like we are part of a loving “tribe,” we feel safe. This activates the physiological effects of the relaxation response in your body:
- A 12-year study of approximately 3,000 nurses with breast cancer conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, published in 2006 found that women who had been isolated socially before diagnosis had twice the risk of breast cancer mortality. Those who went through the actual cancer experience alone were four times more likely to die from the disease than those who had 10 or more friends supporting their journey. Interestingly, having many close friendships was found to be more important to the nurses’ health than having a spouse.
- A comprehensive study done by researchers of the Human Population Laboratory gathered health and lifestyle information from residents in Alameda County, California, over a 50-year period. Amongst the ground-breaking discoveries that they made was the undeniable connection between social connections, life expectancy, and risk of disease of any kind. Remarkably, independent of age, sex, pre-existing health conditions, socioeconomic status, smoking, alcohol consumption, race, obesity level, physical activity, and use of preventative health services, individuals who had the fewer social ties were three times more likely to die over a 9-year period than those who had the most social ties. The study also found that those with the most social connections had the lowest rates of many kind of disease, including cancer.
- Several studies have also shown that individuals who have a strong support network of spiritually-minded peers in particular, such as members of church groups, have a longer life expectancy. Researchers speculate that those who practice a form of caring spirituality together are often dedicated to not only support one another during crisis, but to promote healthy “clean” living on a daily basis. In psychological terms, the belief in a caring, loving higher power has been shown to lead to feelings of safety, security, love, and hope. This, in turn, can elicit the relaxation response.
6 Ways You Can Turn on the Relaxation Response and Get the Support That You Need
Here are 6 actions you can take RIGHT NOW to get the help that will turn on healing for you:
- Be selective about who you allow on your “support team.” Each of your family members and friends may be close to your heart. But, let’s face it, not all of them may be the best listeners and confidants for you as you enter what could be one of the most challenging times of your life. Take the time NOW to do an inventory of individuals you can count on. Who can you truly rely on to be there in your darkest hour? Who may have a listening ear? Stay away from those who leave you burnt out and stressed. Also be wary of those who consistently wish to impose their own health views on you without asking. Always keep in mind that the path towards health is yours alone. Stay away from overly-negative individuals especially. It is okay to decline an invitation to lunch with an energy-drainer. Instead, fill your days with either quality alone time or people who are optimistic and truly care about your well-being.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out for support. After doing a thorough inventory of the people closest to you, you may find that your circle of true support is quite small. In this age of texting, email, and less face-to-face interaction, this is not so unusual. If this is the case for you, then NOW is the time to find a caring group that you can truly connect with. A great resource is MeetUp, which is a free internet-based service that allows people in a particular region to find hundreds of face-to-face groups, classes, and other events with like-minded individuals. Other ideas include going to a seminar, taking a class, or checking the bulletin boards of your local health food store or recreation center for groups and activities.
- Reach out to your spiritual community. If you are spiritually-minded, consider reaching out to your local church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or shrine leader for information and support.
- Connect with a pet. If you don’t have a pet, consider getting one or signing up for an Animal-Assisted Therapy Service in your area. Studies have proven the healing and relaxation power of animals.
- For the next six months, make nurturing yourself and reducing stress your first priority! Relaxation and healing occurs when we feel the loving support of our family and community, but it is not the only factor for turning on healing responses. As you negotiate all the decisions needed in your unique course with cancer, commit to finding joy and laughter every day. Do this every hour if you can! − even it if means binge-watching funny movies like Norman Cousins did in his book Anatomy of an Illness. Remember that laughter turns on healing chemicals in your body in a big way.
- Slow down your life. Finally, find time to routinely do other things that bring you peace, such as taking a walk in nature, reading an inspiring book, engaging in a creative hobby, practicing tapping, or visualizing with feeling your body healing on all levels.
Most importantly, know that you do not have to go it alone. Accept sincere offers for help. Make an effort to connect with friends, family members, and groups who can lend a listening ear and a helping hand as you go down your path towards healing.