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  • Writer's pictureSimone Grove

Supporting your nervous system after a cancer diagnosis

Updated: May 7

Today I’m continuing my series on the nervous system, the fight or flight response and how this can affect you if you are dealing with a diagnosis of cancer (if you haven’t read Part One yet, you can find it here).

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer is quite understandably one of the most stressful situations a person can experience – and for many the stress is multi-faceted, too. Fear of the unknown, worrying about the worst-case scenario, wondering how family and friends will cope and financial concerns can all contribute to an overall feeling of persistent anxiety. This can create a highly stressful state of mind which not only affects us mentally and emotionally but can impact on our physical state, too.

As a holistic, integrative therapist specialising in oncology discussing stress and cancer together is especially important, because being in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ and struggling with a frazzled nervous system significantly influences our ability to heal. That’s why being aware of the impact of stress on body and mind and having useful tools and techniques available to you to help you feel calmer and more grounded is crucial during cancer treatment and recovery.

In Part 2 of my series on the nervous system I’ll be discussing how the fear response shows up during a diagnosis of cancer, why this affects our healing journey and how you can reduce the impact of this stress response to help you navigate your cancer journey and the healing process.

Symptoms of being in ‘fight or flight’ mode

During the fight or flight response, several things happen which prepare the body and mind to escape the perceived danger you are in. The release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol is triggered, preparing the body for action. You may experience symptoms such as:

Increased Heart Rate: The heart rate increases to pump more oxygen-rich blood to the muscles and vital organs, preparing the body for physical exertion.

Rapid breathing: Breathing becomes faster and more shallow to oxygenate the blood, providing the muscles with the necessary oxygen.

Dilation of pupils: The pupils of the eyes dilate to improve vision, allowing for better detection of potential threats.

Muscle tension: Muscle tension increases to prepare for quick movements and increased strength.

Decreased digestive activity: Digestive processes slow down, as blood is redirected away from the digestive organs to the muscles and other vital systems.

Enhanced mental alertness: Mental alertness and focus increase, helping the individual assess the threat and make quick decisions.

Some people experience some or all of these symptoms – or none at all. Many people suffering with chronic stress actually become used to feeling this way, and may not even notice when they are in fight or flight mode.

Why the fight or flight response doesn’t serve us on our healing journey

As mentioned in Part One of this blog, occasional stress is a very normal part of life and won’t damage your health in the long-term (it’s very important not to become stressed about being stressed!) But when we are experiencing the fight or flight response on a regular or even constant basis, it can have a variety of negative effects on body and mind. When you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, it’s really important that you feel as well as possible in all aspects – from your emotional state and mental health to physical elements such as energy levels, pain management, sleep quality and nutrition. Being in a state of prolonged or severe stress significantly impacts various biological processes and systems in the body, including:

Immune system: Stress weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and illness. This is especially crucial for anyone going through chemotherapy, immunotherapy or radiotherapy who may be at greater risk of picking up illness already.

Digestion: Stress can cause indigestion, stomach ulcers and conditions such as IBS, affecting what and how we eat and ultimately impacting on how well we can nourish our bodies. Weight loss and weight gain can also be influenced by stress.

Mental and emotional wellbeing: People dealing with chronic stress are more likely to develop anxiety disorders and depression which can cause a vicious cycle of emotional stress and physical symptoms.

Sleep: Stress greatly impacts upon our ability to sleep and sleep quality, affecting and interrupting the body’s natural healing processes.

Working with the vagus nerve and Polyvagal Theory to reduce the stress response and promote healing

Understandably many people I meet feel completely powerless when it comes to dealing with their stress – especially if it’s influenced by something external which isn’t within their control such as cancer.

It’s perfectly normal to go into a state of shock and stress when you receive a diagnosis of cancer – but it’s how you then manage that stress which can help you to ensure more positive outcomes during your treatment and cancer journey. Because the stress response is automatic, it can feel challenging to manage it and prevent it from happening.

There are lots of stress management techniques out there and because we are all unique, dealing with stress in a broad sense really does look different for every individual. But there are some tools and techniques which work with the nervous system directly to regulate our stress/fear response and help soothe and manage stress. One of these is the Polyvagal Theory, which has been influential in the fields of psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience as it has been shown to be incredibly effective when it comes to emotional regulation and bringing body and mind into balance and alignment with one another.

These body-based techniques interact with the vagus nerve, which is one of the longest and most important nerves in the entire body and plays a crucial role in the function of the autonomic nervous system. Some proven vagus nerve regulation tools and techniques I recommend to help manage and cope with stress include:

  • Breathwork

  • Meditation

  • Cold exposure therapy

  • Laughter

  • Exercise and physical activity (yoga in particular)

  • EFT Tapping

I strongly recommend seeking out professional guidance for many of these techniques, which are best explored in a supportive and safe space.

Bottom line

Suffering from increased stress following a diagnosis of cancer is completely natural and normal response to a situation like this. But it’s important to remember that this state of fear does not serve you on your healing journey – and that we can take back control of our stress response and wellbeing through listening to our bodies and not just our minds on the road to healing.

You can find out more about how I can support you here or via my website

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