The great and persisting worry – indeed, as one patient described it to me, “This clinging and inescapable mire” – amounts to something like this: “I am caught in a trap, knowing as I do that I am (or my loved-one or friend or whoever) is stressed and suffers from stress on a regular basis. Now I am being told that “stress can cause cancer”. Have I therefore visited this on myself with only myself to blame? Even if it is a consequence of my present illness, how can I – now or ever – find a way forward, not forever clouded by an irrepressive and persistent sense of failure? Tell me: show me a way forward – if such there be – for I long to see even the smallest ray of hope on my present horizon of seeming perpetual gloom and despair”.
The truth is that self-beliefs and opinions about alleged contributory causes can be quite insidious in their capacity to generate all manner of doubts, feelings of inadequacy and feelings of inability to cope. Consequently they need to be challenged and exposed, whenever and wherever they arise. A prime example of this kind of thing is indeed what is entailed in the generalized and unqualified assertion and belief; namely that stress is bad for us and can cause ill health and even life-threatening illnesses, including cancer.
The argument – so far as I understand it – goes something like this: major stressors, from loss of loved ones, poor health, down to relatively minor irritants, such as loss of a favourite possession etc.- impacts upon the body’s immunologic defence system, sometimes greatly impairing its defensive properties and capability to fight illness and disease. The solution (in so far as one can interpret what its proponents are saying) is to avoid stress altogether by some contrived method for “switching off”. Any vacuum thus caused, should (so this line of gratuitous advice runs) be replaced with relaxing music, wave sounds or ‘mind-numbing’ narrative on so called “relaxation tapes”.
Now as many have found and find; relaxing tapes, i.e. music and the like, can, on the appropriate occasion, promote a relaxed state and an overall sense of well-being. However, they do not comprise and should not be used as a kind of soporific convenience, i.e. to dull sense and divert us away from actuality and its implications for daily living. In fact, the reality and truth of the situation is almost the converse of that as outlined above. For not only are reasonably well-controlled bursts of stress in our lives good for us; but stress – as here defined – is the stimulus to all physical, mental and emotional growth.
Nor is it true to claim that stress is – via some insidious route or otherwise – the cause of illness. Rather is it pathogens, i.e. micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses, i.e. minute particles that are capable of replication within living cells, that cause disease (although it may well be true to maintain that chronic and unfettered stress can create favourable environments in which such agents can flourish). (to be continued next week)