Stress Management Skills Stick Around for the Long Haul

woman-stressed-laptopThe increased pace of modern life probably has you feeling more than just a little stressed on a regular basis. Chronic and sometimes even deadly illness can strike unexpectedly, adding to the stress of taking care of kids, managing finances and keeping things together at work. So is the answer really just to suck it up and buckle down? Not according to new research published this week. The team looked at the data gathered on a group of women who learned stress management skills when first diagnosed with breast cancer and found it had more benefits than expected.

Why did the researchers study stress management?

Women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer were recruited between 1998 and 2005 for a study looking at whether stress reduction techniques might improve their quality of life. They asked this question because cancer treatment is often very physically and emotionally difficult. Women have to deal both with the diagnosis and with the side effects of chemotherapy. Even when the treatment is successful, women often worry about whether their cancer will come back and, if so, when. The initial research found that learning how to reduce stress helped improve life quality in these women in the few months during and after treatment, but it didn’t look at the longer term impact of this training.

What stress management skills did these women learn?

The initial research taught the women stress management using a technique called cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT. CBT works by identifying the thoughts a person is having that might be influencing or leading to the emotions they’re feeling or the actions they’re undertaking. The idea is that correcting or changing negative or unrealistic thought patterns can lead to similar changes in emotions or actions that a person might not want.

For example, a patient who had her breast removed during treatment might avoid her husband or do things to push him away out of fear that he no longer finds her attractive. Those actions would lead to significant stress in their relationship. The therapist might work with that woman to find examples of times when the patient was less attractive in the past where her husband has stuck by her or occasions since her treatment when her husband has shown her love and affection. The patient can then see that her negative thinking about her breast removal is probably the real source of her stress and could work to change her behavior towards her husband by changing those thoughts.

Half of the women underwent CBT therapy related to stress for 10 weeks. The other half went to a one-day self-help seminar.

What did the researchers find?

While early research had shown that quality of life was better for those who underwent CBT in the short term, this study found that quality of life for CBT participants was better even up to 15 years after treatment for breast cancer. Women who had learned CBT techniques were also less likely to be depressed or have symptoms of depression. These women also rated their physical well-being as better than those women who had not gone through CBT.

How does this apply to me?

About one in 20 people in the US is a cancer survivor. About one in five of those is a breast cancer survivor. This study indicates that teaching those diagnosed with cancer or even those already in recovery how to deal with stress related to their diagnoses could have major long-term benefits on their quality of life and on their overall well being.

While the researchers don’t extend their findings, it’s also likely that stress management therapy would benefit those with serious medical diagnoses in a similar way. Being diagnosed with diseases like diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease are all stressful, life-changing events. If you’ve recently been given a major diagnosis or feel like you have a lot of stress related to an illness, talk to your doctor about seeing a mental health professional. They can help you find ways to manage and reduce that stress.