Wouldn’t it be great if we could live completely stress-free lives? Eternally sitting on the beach without a care in the world might sounds great, but your body needs some stress to survive.
Your stress response is on call 24/7 to balance the demands of your environment with your body’s ability to meet them. And, your heart has a big part of this important physiological process.
You go for a run- stress hormones trigger your heart to pump faster and harder, which increases the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to your muscles so they can perform.
Someone pulls out in front of you while driving- within a fraction of a second, your stress hormones and heart work together to trigger a series of lightning-speed reactions that enhance your ability to swerve out of the way.
Dr. George Guthrie, Board-Certified Family Medicine Physician at Florida Hospital, explains that while some stress (like exercise) is good for your heart, a constant state of stress, especially emotional stress, for long periods of time could negatively impact your cardiovascular health.
When faced with constant emotional stress or perceptions of stressful events (like being stuck in traffic, financial burdens or family troubles) your body responds with a cascading chain of physiological effects which are meant to assist for a short period of time.
Signaled by different stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, your stress response is meant to help your body get through the stressful event or feeling and then return to its natural state. However, chronic stress interferes with this natural balance, and the continuous release of stress hormones can cause the heart and other vital organs to stay revved up for too long.
“Over time, overexertion on the cardiovascular system and overexposure to stress hormones can have serious health consequences, such as increased risks for chronic high blood pressure, weight gain, heart attack and stroke,” cautions Dr. Guthrie.
He adds that chronic stress is also linked to inflammation in the circulatory system- especially concerning when it is within the coronary arteries. This is considered to be responsible for at least part of the association between long-term high levels of stress hormones and increased heart attack risk.
What you can do
You can’t entirely prevent stress, but you can actively recognize your stress triggers and develop ways to cope with them in a healthful way. Dr. Guthrie helps his patients manage stress for better heart health by offering these tips:
Shift your perspective
Running away from imminent danger could mean life or death. Being late for a meeting, on the other hand, generally does not carry this level of threat. However, if you think chose to think like it does, your body will respond that way.
To avoid this, be aware of things that tend to signal your stress response and create a plan to cope with them. If you come down with a case of “I can’t stand-itis” or begin “awful-izing,” Dr. Guthrie suggests shifting to a larger perspective and choosing to be less reactive and more positive and proactive. Your mind has a lot of power over controlling how you perceive your stressors and how your body will react to them. Your self-talk can make a huge difference in your stress response.
Get enough good quality sleep
Sleep does a body good, especially a stressed one. Dr. Guthrie says that sleep is critical for your emotional health. While sleeping, your brain is processing stress from your day; Sleep scientists call this “dream work.” If you have sleep disturbances, you aren’t giving your body and mind enough dream work time to recharge, so stress continues to mount day after day. Adequate sleep will help you process prior stress and be prepared to tackle new challenges ahead. Incidentally, most common sleeping pills interfere with the REM sleep in which most “dream work” takes place, so it is better to practice good sleep hygiene to improve your sleep.
“Exercise is the best way to deal with most emotional forms of stress,” advises Dr. Guthrie. He says that exercise “cleans up your system,” so to speak. The increased blood flow, oxygen and circulation clears out the emotional stress hormones, and even helps you to make more health-conscious choices. It also lowers blood pressure afterwards, increases the “feel good” hormones in the body, and lowers blood sugar levels (where emotional stress tends to increase them). If you exercise outdoors, you can get an extra boost of vitamin D, fresh air and “outdoorphins,” all of which help counteract stressful feelings.
Stress can send a signal to your brain that you need instant energy. This can lead to cravings for high-fat and high-sugar foods or drinks, which can put more stress on the body by spiking blood sugar levels, inflammation and strain on blood vessels. Dr. Guthrie recommends avoiding these foods and focusing more on fruit and vegetables for their wonderful anti-inflammatory effects. Hydration with water helps the body clear out the stress hormone breakdown products. Avoiding stimulants like caffeine, which have stress hormone like effects, is also a wise move.
Dr. Guthrie concludes: “Long-term exposure to high levels of stress throughout your lifetime increases the likelihood of long-term adverse cardiovascular events, so it’s important to recognize, manage and cope in a healthy way with our daily stresses to promote lifelong heart and overall health.”