Stress Management and Your Heart
Everyday life can be demanding. We don’t have enough time, we don’t get enough sleep, we don’t always eat right, and we take on more than we should.
By living this way, we add stress to our lives. According to the World Health Organization, stress will be the second leading cause of death in the USA by the year 2015 if we don’t do something about it. Sadly enough, 2015 is only nine years away.
“People tend to think that reducing stress is just a ‘nice’ thing to do,” says Shelli Kae Nelson, R.N., B.S. nurse clinician at Edina-based Fairview Southdale Heart, Stroke and Vascular Center. “Actually, it is essential.”
The key to managing stress is to understand what causes it and learn how to effectively manage it.
WHAT IS STRESS?
“Stress is our physiological and psychological response to events and experiences in our lives,” explains Dianne Meixner, a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in trauma, grief, loss, depression, anxiety, and addictions. “When we react to a stressor, whether positive or negative, we feel ‘stressed,’ or more tense, because our bodies have activated our internal energy sources, somewhat like flipping a switch to ‘on.’ Chemicals released in our brains cause several mind and body changes. The blood flow is increased to the brain and large muscles, such as the heart. Sometimes we begin to breathe more rapidly, our heart rates and blood pressure increase, and our muscles tighten. No one bodily response to stress is, by itself, destructive or undesirable. In fact, these responses are often valuable assets in an emergency.”
This fight-or-flight response to stress was encoded in us for survival. It’s a rush of hormones and adrenaline that help us in times of danger. “Good” stress, or stress as a positive influence, can help us feel energized, aware, and focused. It can motivate us to take action and offer an interesting new perspective. This type of stress can help us confront our fears and do well in competitions.
The kind of stress we hear overworked friends or relatives complaining about—negative stress, or distress—can cause feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, depression, worry, and irritability. When we are adjusting to major life changes—the death of a loved one, the birth of a baby, a different job, a relationship change, a move, a new challenge, a serious illness or injury—we experience stress.
When negative stress isn’t managed properly, it can affect your heart.
Nelson explains that when you’re experiencing too much stress for too long, it can lead to high blood pressure, higher cholesterol levels, irregular heart rhythms, a weakened immune system, and damaged arteries.
“Stress is inevitable,” Nelson says. “The trick is to manage the effects of stress—the chemical changes—in order to reduce the damaging effects.”
RECOGNIZE THE SOURCE OF STRESS
The first step in reducing stress is recognizing that you are stressed. How does your body react in certain situations? Do you become physically upset? Nervous? Anxious? Do you get headaches or stomachaches from excessive worrying? Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you not acting like yourself? Are you having a hard time concentrating for any length of time? Are you turning to drugs or alcohol to escape your problems? If you answer yes to these questions, it’s a pretty strong indication that you’re not effectively coping with the stress in your life. The good thing about stress is that it can—to some extent—be managed.
“Often I see people going to conferences, classes and other avenues to reduce stress, but they never make any changes,” Nelson says. “If nothing changes, nothing changes.”
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not your mother-in-law, your boss, your family, or your high-maintenance friend stressing you out.
“People tend to think that others cause their stress, when it’s really an internal reaction,” Nelson says.
The bottom line is that people don’t cause us stress. It’s how we interpret events and react to those people that stress us out. Most of our stress is self-generated. It’s up to us to change how we look at situations in order to bring our stress levels down.
Another common question Nelson receives is: “How can I get more done in a day?”
“There have always been 24 hours in a day,” she points out. “The problem is that we, in our society, try to fit too many things into those 24 hours.”
The key is deciding what has real importance in life and making those things a priority, she says.
She asks, “What will ultimately matter to you at the end of your life? Do you spend time doing those things? Or do you spend your time doing things of minimal importance?”
There are several steps you can take to help gain control and moderate your physical reaction to stress. The most simple is the deep breathing technique. (When you are stressed you tend to breathe more shallowly, putting less oxygen in the blood stream.)
- Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Close your mouth and breathe in naturally through your nose. Inhale deeply and slowly (count to three).
- Breathe out through your nose, slowly and deeply.
- Repeat until you feel your muscles relax and your breathing slow to a comfortable rate.
Another popular way to combat stress is through focused, or guided imagery. This relaxation technique can promote a sense of peace and tranquility during the stressful times in your life.
- Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Close your eyes.
- Take a few deep breaths, to help you relax.
- Imagine a scene that makes you feel relaxed. Maybe it’s your cabin; maybe it’s a soothing waterfall; maybe it was a memorable vacation (or a place you’d like to visit someday). Try to imagine how it looks, how it smells, how it sounds, and how it feels. Some people like to use imagery CDs to help them tap into their subconscious.
WAYS TO KEEP STRESS AT BAY
The best way to combat stress is by leading a healthy, balanced, well-rounded life. Here are some good tips for staying one step ahead of stress:
Exercise can help with stress relief by releasing tension and pent-up frustration. “There is no greater pill, tranquilizer, or treatment in the world,” Nelson says.
Physically, exercise improves your cardiovascular functions by strengthening and enlarging the heart, causing greater elasticity of the blood vessels, increasing oxygen throughout your body, and lowering cholesterol and triglycerides. According to the American Heart Association, regular aerobic physical activity plays a major role in both primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.
Mentally, exercise provides an outlet for negative emotions. With regular exercise, your body releases greater amounts of endorphins, pain-relieving, mood-elevating chemicals in the brain. Endorphins are natural painkillers and can help lift your mood.
Lead a healthy lifestyle
Drink plenty of water, get enough sleep, avoid nicotine, excessive caffeine and other stimulants, and get the nutrients your body needs. Vitamin C maintains a healthy immune system, the vitamin B group relates directly to the brain and nervous system, and vitamin D is great for your bones. Stress may increase your body’s need for certain nutrients and weaken your immune system, so you need a healthy diet to stay alert, energetic, and focused (and avoid getting sick). If you eat a healthy diet the majority of the time, odds are that you’ll stay healthy when you’re feeling stressed.
Listen to music
Music can have a very calming effect. When it comes to stress management, the most effective music has a slow rhythm and repeating or cyclical pattern. Nelson suggests strings and instrumental music. The next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam, listen to a mellow CD or tune to the classical or light music station.
In a relaxed state of mind, your pulse slows, your blood pressure falls, your breathing slows, and your muscles relax. Take 10 to 20 minutes each day to quietly reflect.
Use art as a creative outlet
You don’t have to be an artist to benefit from art therapy and stress management, according to Dianne Meixner, a registered art therapist at the Anna Westin House, a residential treatment program for eating disorders. “In fact, sometimes art training can get in the way of feeling free with whatever images, lines, colors, or shapes surface.”
According to Bernie Siegle, M.D., author of Love, Medicine, and Miracles, “I wish all physicians would add a box of crayons to their diagnostic and therapeutic tools.”
Using art tends to tap into the right side of our brain, where our thinking is holistic and creative.
“Engaging in any creative process, whether it is art, music, movement, or writing, can produce a sense of calmness and relaxation which is healing and life-enhancing,” Meixner explains.
Mix work and leisure time
Leisure is one of the best stress relievers. It’s an escape from the pressures of the day. Take a break from your worries by doing something you enjoy.
Reframe your thoughts
You can reduce stress levels based on how you choose to look at various situations. There are many ways to interpret the same situation. Keep a sense of humor (laughter relieves tension). See problems as solutions. Ask for help when you need it.
Share your feelings
Your friends and family will provide love, support, and guidance when you are feeling stressed. There are also many therapeutic benefits to expressing your thoughts and feelings in a journal. If you are upset with someone, write him or her a letter and destroy it.
Expect some frustration and failure
Set realistic goals and expectations. Don’t try to do too much at once. You’re not Superman. Remember that no one is perfect.