Scientists have long known that our genes play a role in determining whether we develop various medical conditions, ranging from cancer and heart disease to diabetes and dementia.
What’s new: Researchers are now discovering that certain genes must be "expressed" (activated) in order to trigger their disease-causing effects. One of the most significant findings in the emerging field of epigenetics (the study of gene expression) is the degree to which the environment -- including what we eat and how we respond to stress -- affects our genetics. The unchecked flow of stress hormones can lead to inflammation and deregulate immune function, increasing the likelihood that inborn genetic vulnerabilities to disease will be activated.
Important new finding: People with a 10-year history of workplace stress had five times the incidence of colorectal cancer as people with less job stress. Besides the link to increased cancer risk, stress also has been shown to make cancer patients less responsive to treatment.
If you have any chronic medical condition, here are some important ways to increase your odds of overcoming your illness -- or at least keep it in check...
Take control. Researchers who study "survivors" -- people who remain healthy after stressful life events that make others sick -- have found that one of several traits that they all share is a feeling of being in control of their own lives.
Helpful:To start taking better control of your life, draw a circle and divide it into your various daily activities. Next, identify which activities energize you and which leave you feeling depleted. Then look for ways to spend more time on the former and less on the latter. If certain friends or relatives drain you, modify or limit your time with them. If your job has stressful elements, work on solutions.
Commit... to yourself. Another survivor trait pinpointed by research is a strong commitment to self. To cultivate this trait, try this exercise: Sit quietly and breathe deeply. Consider all that your lungs, internal organs, muscles, bones and five senses allow you to do. Then ask yourself: "Is there something I can do for my body to help it heal more completely?"
This could include steps to improve your nutrition, exercise or lifestyle -- or any action that would make your body’s job easier.
Don’t forget your childhood. In a large study sponsored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood physical, sexual or emotional abuse was the single most predictive factor of chronic illness in adulthood. While you can’t undo the past, several studies show that disclosing and working through troubling childhood experiences can lead to health benefits, such as a reduction in harmful levels of stress hormones.
You can talk to a psychotherapist or mental health counselor and/or write about these experiences.
Helpful: Expressive writing (a form of writing that focuses on feelings) has been found to improve both physical and psychological health. For those who have undergone traumatic experiences, this type of writing has been shown to have a number of benefits, including a reduction in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
Make sure you have a confidant. Just as toxic relationships can be damaging, positive relationships benefit your health. In one Harvard study of 56,000 subjects, those without at least one confidant had the worst health. If you feel your social network could be stronger, consider inviting more potential friends into your life... joining a support group (such as one that focuses on a medical condition)... and/or seeing a therapist or counselor (who can provide support and perhaps help improve your relationship skills).
Find a bigger purpose. Research shows that helping people -- by doing some form of public service, for example -- reduces illness and mortality. Studies also have found that spirituality and belief in something greater than oneself is linked to increased longevity.
Embrace stillness. A regular habit of quieting yourself is important. This can be achieved through meditation, which can take many forms.
Examples: Repeating a calming phrase, such as "In this moment, all is well" or "I am safe and secure"... breathing deeply while sitting quietly... or taking walks in nature can be considered meditation.
A 19-year study found that people who meditated regularly had 30% fewer heart attacks and 49% less risk of dying from cancer over a 7.6-year period than those who didn’t meditate regularly -- perhaps due to reduced levels of disease-promoting stress hormones.
Source: Brenda Stockdale, director of mind-body medicine at the RC Cancer Centers in Cumming, Georgia. She completed clinical training at Harvard Medical School’s mind-body medicine program and is the author of You Can Beat the Odds -- Surprising Factors Behind Chronic Illness and Cancer (Sentient).