Heart Health Stress

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February 05, 2016

Avoiding stress: It could save your heart

Managing life’s many unexpected circumstances undoubtedly can cause a great deal of stress. Whether it is a new job, managing a change at home, challenges at work or financial, stress has many causes.

Unfortunately, stress can be a major driver of heart disease in women if not managed properly. Follow these tips to help you manage whatever stressful situations life throws at you:

Close Your Eyes and Breathe

Take a deep breath: When times get tough it helps to stop and take a breath. Doing so will lower your blood pressure, slow your breathing, and allow your muscles to relax as your breath calms. Experts recommend setting aside time daily when you are alert to focus on breathing.

Dr. Herbert Benson discovered the “relaxation response,” a state of deep rest that helps your body decrease physical and emotional stress: “Abdominal breathing for 20 to 30 minutes each day will reduce anxiety and reduce stress. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. Breathing techniques help you feel connected to your body — it brings your awareness away from the worries in your head and quiets your mind.”

The relaxation response is a daily activity you can do in the car on your way home, or sitting at your desk after lunch to refocus your energy.

Meditate: If you have more time than just a short break to eliminate stress, try meditation. Similar to deep breathing, meditation will put you at one with yourself, focusing on the present, reducing negativity, and helping stress melt away.

The Mayo Clinic recommends meditation as a key way to manage stress: “During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress. This process may result in enhanced physical and emotional well-being.”

Step outside, and let it go

Exercise: Holding onto stress hurts no one but yourself. Physical activity is an excellent way to release the nervous energy that builds up due to stress.

Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, Ph.D., a kinesiologist at the Yale Stress Center, has studied the role of exercise in reducing stress: “Stress atrophies the brain -- especially the hippocampus, which is responsible for a lot, but memory in particular. When you’re stressed, you forget things.” Since exercise promotes the production of neurohormones, it can offset these and other mental effects of stress.

Admire the scenery: Sometimes, you are not in the mood or don’t have the time to work out. Going outside is still recommended. If not for a walk, simply admire the scenery.

“Just looking at a garden or trees or going for a walk, even if it’s in your own neighborhood, reduces stress. I don’t think anyone understands why, but there’s something about being in a natural setting that shows clear evidence of stress reduction, including physiological evidence -- like lower heart rate,” according to environmental psychologist Judith Heerwagon.

Lastly, turn toward the bright side

Be your own cheerleader: Positive self-talk makes all the difference. Often we look to others for a pat on the back, but this can also come from within. Reminding yourself that you are working hard and going to be OK can make all the difference in calming down during a stressful situation. Be positive and actively work to remove negative thoughts from your self-talk to reduce stress:

Don’t forget those around you: While it’s never expected for others to raise you up, it is always nice. Give thanks to those around you and you’ll lower your own stress and theirs.

“Many people may think of gratitude as a ‘passive’ gesture — you wait for something good, then feel grateful,” said David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston. DeSteno studies the effects that thankfulness can have on people’s behavior.

“Gratitude isn’t passive reflection. It’s active,” DeSteno said. “And it’s not about the past. It’s there to help direct our behavior in the future.”