Stress is a normal reaction when we feel overwhelmed by the demands from the world around us. Stress is more than just a physical or emotional reaction. It can affect our body, our feelings and how we act.

Physical symptoms of stress

  • headaches, tense muscles or muscle pain
  • chest pain
  • fatigue or sleep problems
  • loss of interest in sex
  • heartburn, upset stomach
  • high blood pressure

Emotional symptoms of stress

  • irritability
  • anger
  • anxiety
  • restlessness
  • sadness, depression
  • problems concentrating
  • lack of interest, low motivation

Behaviours that may be related to stress

  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • smoking
  • withdrawal
  • eating too much or too little
  • “picking fights” or being argumentative
  • uncontrolled crying

Stress and cancer

Cancer can be a very stressful life event. Waiting for a diagnosis, hearing that you have cancer, coping with treatment and side effects, being anxious about work and finances, and worrying about what the future holds can add up to a large amount of stress in your life.

Learning to manage stress can help you feel less tired and anxious, improve your quality of life and help you cope.

If you’re having trouble coping, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Support from your family and friends can give you comfort, and they may have ideas on how to manage. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a family member or friend, a counsellor or person with a similar experience can also help.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a group of symptoms found in some people who have survived highly stressful or traumatic events, such as natural disasters, military missions, physical or sexual assault, and life-threatening illness – like cancer.

PTSD symptoms can cause major problems with relationships, work and other parts of daily life. Reactions of cancer survivors with PTSD may include:

  • staying away from places (such as hospitals) or people that were part of the cancer treatment
  • being extremely anxious or fearful, feeling helpless, over-excited or irritable
  • sleeping poorly, with nightmares about the cancer or cancer treatment
  • constantly reliving the cancer experience, having flashbacks or thinking about it all the time

It is rare for someone to have PTSD after surviving cancer, but it is possible. To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person has to have symptoms for longer than 30 days. Some cancer survivors may be at higher risk of developing PTSD than others. This includes people who have had previous mental health problems or previous trauma, have high levels of stress in their life or have very little support from family or friends.

Treatment may involve different types of therapy to teach:

  • problem solving and coping skills
  • how to change thinking patterns and behaviours
  • how to stop avoiding situations
  • how to manage stress

Support groups that provide emotional support and a chance to meet others who have had similar experiences may also be helpful for some people with PTSD.

For people with severe symptoms of PTSD, medicines to help with anxiety or depression may be prescribed by the doctor, along with professional counselling.