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Reconceptualizing Stress in Cancer Treatment

April 14, 2015
Lebanon, NH

Dartmouth investigators encourage bodymind therapy to treat trauma in patients with cancer

Psychological stress alone does not cause cancer but it can interfere with the immune system's response to cancer cells, which may increase the potential of metastasis, and cause neurochemical imbalance that may impact the survival of a patient with cancer. In a Theory and Hypothesis paper titled  "The preparatory set: A novel approach to understanding 'stress,' trauma, and the bodymind therapies,"  published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Dartmouth investigators Peter Payne, SEP, and Mardi Crane-Godreau, PhD, point to the shortcomings of using the word stress in a medical or scientific context.  

"Stress is a recognized factor in predisposing people to cancer and to adversely impacting treatment and recovery," said Crane-Godreau. "There are a number of non-mainstream educational and therapeutic practices known as 'bodymind' practices which appear to be effective in dealing with stress and trauma, but how they actually work is not well understood. We need a better way of thinking about what actually is happening in the nervous system when a person faces various forms of challenge and how the stress is resolved."

The paper suggests an alternative perspective when conceptualizing and treating stress, in addition to proposing the use of mechanisms of action of bodymind therapeutic and educational systems as treatment. "We emphasize the role of the subcortical (unconscious or semi-conscious) levels of the mind in the stress response," Payne explained. "We show how it is possible to alter these subcortical patterns by focusing on the components of the Preparatory Set: posture and muscle tension, breathing, body sensation, emotion, attention, and expectation."

(Learn more about the Preparatory Set and watch a demonstration of its execution in this Cancer Grand Rounds presentation by Payne and Crane-Godreau)

Crane-Godreau and Payne developed the concept of the Preparatory Set to explain stress and trauma, as well as offer a scientific explanation for the effectiveness of the bodymind therapies like Tai Chi, Yoga, the Alexander Technique, and body-oriented psychotherapies.

"Our paper makes extensive suggestions for research to test our hypotheses; in particular, the tendency for the components of the Preparatory Set to influence each other," said Crane-Godreau. "Although there is already evidence for several of these connections, more research is needed to confirm and extend these findings."

"We believe that this paper will facilitate future research and open a wider discussion of the neuroscience behind the efficacy of the body-oriented stress therapies," Payne explained. "We hope that this will include studies of neuro-immune interactions."

Peter Payne and Mardi Crane-Godreau,  work in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, where Crane-Godreau is an assistant professor. They are funded in part to study Qigong (meditative movement), which they believe shares mechanisms of action with Somatic Experiencing and other bodymind oriented interventions.

About Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock

Norris Cotton Cancer Center combines advanced cancer research at Dartmouth and the Geisel School of Medicine with patient-centered cancer care provided at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH, at Dartmouth-Hitchcock regional locations in Manchester, Nashua, and Keene, NH, and St. Johnsbury, VT, and at 12 partner hospitals throughout New Hampshire and Vermont. It is one of 41 centers nationwide to earn the National Cancer Institute's "Comprehensive Cancer Center" designation. Learn more about Norris Cotton Cancer Center research, programs, and clinical trials online at cancer.dartmouth.edu.

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