How to Use (Cancer) Stress to Boost your Wellbeing

Gisa Ellis-Mawer
Gisa Ellis-Mawer
The Founder of Gisa Ellis Consulting

I recently watched an inspiring Ted talk by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, in which she states the findings of several scientific studies. Her talk confirmed to me what I believe to be true about stress including (ongoing) stress due to a medical diagnosis like cancer.

Kelly discusses a study tracking 30 000 adults in the US over 8 years. The participants were initially asked how much stress they have had in their previous year and if they believed that stress was harmful for their lives. The result of the study showed, that the people who did not believe that stress was harmful for their body and health had a lower risk of dying then the ones who believed it was harmful.

According to Kelly, science confirms that when you change your mind how you think about stress, you can change your body’s response to it! Fascinating!

She also mentions another study called ‘social stress test’ designed to stress you out during the test (not sure I would like to do that one). She explains that participants who considered their body’s stress response during the test (like pounding heart etc.) as helpful and as the body’s indicator to spring into action and tackle the challenge were less stressed, more confident and their blood vessels stayed more relaxed.

Not only that, according to Kelly, science also states that stress makes you social. During your body’s stress response, the hormone Oxytocin (also called the cuddle hormone) is released via the pituitary gland. Oxytocin is also a neuro hormone, which fine tunes the brain’s social instincts and it primes you to do things to strengthen close relationships. It also makes you crave physical contact, enhances empathy and encourages you to seek support when you need it.

On top of that Oxytocin also acts on your body, primarily to protect your cardio vascular system from the effects of stress. It is a natural anti-inflammatory, helps your blood vessels to stay relaxed and your heart cells to regenerate and heal from stress damage.

The amazing thing is, that every time when you reach out to get help from someone or support someone else during times of stress, you enhance the release of Oxytocin, making your stress response healthier and helping you to recover faster from stress damages. ‘Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection’ she says.

Another study in the US tracked 1000 adults ranging from 34 to 93 years old. The researchers started out asking how much stress the participants experienced in the last year. The second question was, how much time the participants spent helping friends, loved ones, neighbours and people in the community. 5 years later, the researchers concluded that the people who spent time caring for other people had no increased risk of dying compared to the participants who did not.

In conclusion, stress can be harmful to your body and health depending how you think and act. If you consider your stress response as helpful you create the biology of courage. When you connect with others during stress you can create resilience. Stress can make you find meaning in human connection and helping others.

Her talk inspired me to think about my own and other people’s cancer journey. Cancer is one of the most stressful things you go through in life. Saying that, Kelly’s talk confirmed to me, that the way you think about it and the way you act upon it can make the difference between healing and putting more stress onto your health and wellbeing. It also confirmed to me, that connecting and reaching out is imperative for healing.

In conclusion, working on our mental and emotional strength as well as reaching out to help and being helped is imperative on the cancer journey.

Find Kelly’s talk on YouTube here via


Let me know your comments and thoughts! Maybe some action as well, how could you implement it in your own life? xx


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