I think we’ve all heard the statistics about cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. By now, we know it is the number one killer of men and women in the United States. Heart disease alone kills one in four Americans each year.
What you might not know is that heart disease is preventable in many cases if you make healthy choices and manage your health conditions. Topics such as a healthy diet and exercise get a lot of the press time, but managing stress in your life is just as important. Stress is more than an emotional upheaval. Too much of it not handled properly can affect you physically as well.
The American Heart Association has an entire stress management section on its webpage with lots of good information and tips. Here, I’ll focus on what stress can do to you and mention a few things you can do to combat those effects. The website has many more.
Think about what causes you to feel stress. For many of us, work is a big contributor, but many things can leave a person feeling stressed. It could be an illness, either personal or that of a loved one, relationship problems, financial concerns or just the hassles of everyday life.
When we’re stressed, we often feel anxious, irritated and out of control. You might not connect them, but those little (or big) aches and pains you get – like headaches, backaches or stomachaches – could also be related to stress, as well. So could those feelings of depression and helplessness, tenseness and anger. If you’re having trouble sleeping or you’re feeling tired all the time, that could be stress, too.
The AHA admits the link between chronic stress and heart disease is not clear, but we do know that the body reacts to stress by releasing adrenaline, igniting the “fight or flight” response, which includes increasing the heart rate and blood pressure. Chronic stress causes a person to be on “high alert” for long periods of time. That’s got to take a toll on the ticker after a while.
Let’s switch gears and talk about how we can cope with the stress that is pretty much inevitable in our lives. The AHA has some good ideas. Besides the basics of eating better and getting physical activity, they suggest you fight stress with healthy habits. Here are a few they recommend (see their website for the whole list):
- Remember to laugh – It’s the “best medicine,” and it works for stress, too.
- Slow down – Plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to get each task done. This way, you’re not rushing around trying to do everything at once.
- Practice giving back – Helping others helps you as well.
- Try not to worry – The world won’t end if you don’t mow your lawn or clean your kitchen today. It will still get done if you do it another time.
The AHA also offers some other stress management tools including positive self-talk and daily relaxation tips. If you want more, many community health centers and even some hospitals offer classes on stress management. Certain forms of exercise, such as yoga and Tai Chi, are also good at relaxing the mind and body and relieving stress.
While we don’t fully understand the link between stress and heart disease, we do know that stress, especially chronic stress, takes a terrible toll on our bodies, leading to emotional and physical responses. Often, we deal with chronic stress by engaging in negative behaviors: We eat too much, we drink too much, and we rush around in a panic and ignore the gym.
Determining the cause of our stress, recognizing our responding behaviors and making some healthy adjustments are essential to managing stress in our lives. Pay attention, and give your heart a lucky break!