Stress Hurts Health, Won’t Cause Cancer

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It doesn’t take a yoga instructor to tell you that the health of your body and the health of your mind are closely intertwined. A stressful day or a wave of anxiety often joins forces with a headache, stomachache, or loss of appetite. But scientists and doctors have long been curious about the long-term effects of mental health on our physical health.

A recent study out of UC San Francisco asked over 15,000 adults about their mental health over four years, and then researchers calculated the participants’ risk for heart conditions, stroke, high blood pressure, arthritis, and cancer. When the numbers were crunched, they found that anxiety and depression are huge risk factors for all of the above—except for cancer.

“Our findings are in line with a lot of other studies showing that psychological distress is not a strong predictor of many types of cancer… We need to stop attributing cancer diagnoses to histories of stress, depression and anxiety,” the study’s senior author, Aoife O’Donovan, said.

The researchers found that anxiety and depression are about on par with smoking and obesity when it comes to increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, and back pain.

Study participants who had high levels of anxiety and depression had a 65 percent increase in their risk for a heart condition, a 64 percent increase for stroke, 50 percent for arthritis, and 87 percent for arthritis.

It might be time for a mental health check to go hand-in-hand with a weight and height check in medical checkups.

But unlike other health conditions, there was no identifiable increase in cancer risk in those who dealt with anxiety and depression. These findings are in line with the stance of the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, who say there is no reason to think that stress causes cancer or makes tumors grow.

Those worried that their worry will cause cancer can put their minds at ease. And for those who have had cancer, it’s time to put the blame game to rest.

When we consider the findings that stress and anxiety are risk factors for other serious health complications, there are a couple things we should keep in mind. First, there are many factors that play into anxiety and depression, both hereditary and circumstantial. Poverty can contribute to stress and depression, as can other factors out of a patient’s control. Just as we shouldn’t blame cancer on depression, we shouldn’t blame depression on the individual struggling.

Second, because of the huge effects of depression and anxiety and their direct link to our physical health, it’s appropriate to take these conditions seriously and treat them accordingly. O’Donovan says that the study’s results, “serve as a reminder that treating mental health conditions can save money for health systems.”

Treating mental health issues could save more than just money. Given its impact on our health, treatment could save lives. In the meantime, we can all rest assured that stress or mental health challenges aren’t giving us cancer. Let’s continue looking for potential cures, rather than looking for who’s to blame.

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Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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