Managing Stress to Improve Heart Health

What is stress?

Stress. We all have it. But where does it come from? And what is it? It’s the monthly bills, the upcoming assignment, driving in the winter weather, getting the kids ready for school, meeting work deadlines, and the list could go on and on. We all experience some type of stress on a daily basis. Stress can be overwhelming when it’s internalized and not properly managed. Therefore, it’s important we address our stressors to ensure they don’t consume us.

Why does it matter how we manage our stressors?

Stress can negatively impact one’s heart health. When we internalize stress, it can cause feelings of anxiety and increase heart rate. Our body then responds by releasing the hormone cortisol. Studies have linked high levels of cortisol to an increase in blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. These changes can damage arteries found within the heart, increase the risk for heart attacks, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, to the natural response of the body, people often choose negative ways to cope with their stress. For instance, they’ll turn to comfort foods, consumption of alcohol, physical inactivity, or smoking. Each of these coping mechanisms can also cause harm to the heart by increasing risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis, and heart failure. It’s apparent that stress and harmful coping strategies take a toll on heart health, therefore, it’s crucial we find positive coping mechanisms.

What are positive coping strategies to manage stress?

1. Positive self-talk
Use “I can” statements when approaching stressful situations. This can improve your coping skills during difficult times. In addition, taking time to self-reflect and utilizing a glass-half full strategy can decrease levels of distress. A positive mind set can change perspective and improve one’s mentality with regard to stressors.

2. Physical activity
Exercise can help manage stress because it releases endorphins, which are natural pain-killer chemicals that allow us to feel good. The release of endorphins positively impacts our mood and decreases our levels of stress. Also, engagement of physical activity improves energy levels and cognitive function which can beneficial in combating stressors. Exercise can simply be walking!

3. Time management
Give yourself plenty of time to ensure you are not rushing around. Set the clock ahead 5 to 10 minutes to avoid running late. Make a schedule and stick to it. Stay organized through lists. Things you can prepare in advance, do so. Avoid procrastination. These are all helpful ways to improve time management and avoid unnecessary stressor.

4. Improve sleep
Lack of sleep can heighten our emotional response and increase stress. It’s important we have adequate sleep to fully function. It is recommended adults sleep an average of 8 hours per night. There is a variety of things you can do to improve quality of sleep. Avoid caffeine before bed, avoid excessive alcohol consumption, avoid naps, put technology away, turn the TV off, give yourself adequate time to wind down, and invest in a comfortable/supportive mattress and pillows.

5. Relaxation techniques
Engaging in meditation or yoga, listening to calming music, and using imagery are all good relaxation strategies. Meditation and yoga encourage a mind-body connection. Listening to calming music allows for time to decompress. Use of imagery, such as picturing yourself in nature or on the beach, is a great strategy to escape momentarily from the stressor.

Here are a few of our favorite yoga relaxation poses:

Legs Up on the Wall                Child’s Pose                         Corpse Pose

6. Deep breathing
When feeling stressed, stop, close your eyes, and begin to take big, deep breathes. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Continue to deep breath for 3 to 5 minutes. Deep breathing allows for activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us to enter a state of relaxation. Also, it helps to release tension within the muscles and improve stress relief.

7. Engage in hobbies
Take 10-15minutes of your day to do something you enjoy, whether that be reading, sewing, running, doing puzzles, or anything of the sort. Engagement in hobbies allows you time to decompress and focus your energy on something you enjoy. It keeps you well rounded and provides a mental break.

8. Laugh
Surround yourself with people that make you laugh, watch a funny TV show, look up funny memes, or use any other type of outlet that can provide some sort of comedic relief. Laughter relieves tension within the muscles, decreases stress hormones, improves immune response, releases endorphins (natural feel-good chemicals), and increases blood flow. A dose of laughter has a variety of mental and physical health benefits.

9. Reduce caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant. If not consumed in moderation, it can increase feelings of anxiety and cause jitteriness. Learn your body’s response to caffeine and know your limits. If you can only handle one cup of coffee, only drink one cup. Don’t go overboard on the caffeine, it may give you a temporary energy boost but that energy may not be worth the side effects.

10. Eat a balanced diet
Eating a well-balanced diet filled with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and good fats will properly nourish the body and increase energy. This will allow you to properly tackle the day and any challenges you may face.

Does stress overcome you at times? Do you often feel overwhelmed, get heart palpitations or anxiety? We encourage you to start with one or two things on the list to help you battle your stress and begin in the right direction toward better heart health!


Physical Therapy Can Help you get “Heart Healthy”

February is American Heart Health Month! In the United States someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds. Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease and kills nearly 380,000 people each year. That comes down to someone dying from a heart disease-related event every 60 seconds according to the Heart Foundation.

What does this have to do with physical therapy?

There are a lot of reasons to not be able to exercise and a few of those we can help with!

Gait/balance issues, pain in joints or the back, and being overweight are the most common reasons patients have a difficult time getting exercise to be more “heart healthy”. As physical therapists, we see many patients with these issues and those patients feel they can’t exercise for fear of falling, being in too much pain, and not being able to control their diet.

If you are suffering from poor balance and gait with a fear of falling, we can help! We see many patients in the clinic who drastically improve balance by training with gentle strengthening, balance and obstacle course practice. Balance is often compromised when our neurological system does not connect with the muscular system well. This could be caused from a previous stroke, injury, neuropathies, falling, or neurological disease. We have special equipment to improve the “proprioception” of the body which simply means where the body is in space. By using swiss balls, uneven ground, small rebounder, hurdles, cones, and resistance bands we can put together a program to help get you better balance. This will help transition you to a program to be able to walk or use a stationary bike. Any form of this exercise will help keep you healthier and moving!
Pain in the joints and back is the most common reason people don’t exercise. We see patients often who state “I can’t lose weight or exercise due to the pain in my knees (or insert any body part that hurts)!” However, after a month or two of therapy, these patients walk out ready to continue with an exercise program with less pain or pain free. These patients then tell us how they wished they would have come sooner!

Pain will occur in the body if there is an imbalance between the muscles, arthritis, or alignment issues. The imbalance in alignment or muscles causes stress on joints, increased tension of the nerves, decreased circulation, and postural deformity. During physical therapy, your therapist will address any and all of the imbalances you may have by performing manual techniques, modalities, strengthening and stretching exercises, and posture education. Manual techniques may include joint mobilization, soft tissue massage, Astym®, dry needling, and muscle energy to correct alignment issues. Exercises will include specific strengthening and stretching to areas that are weak and tight. And modalities may be hot pack, cold pack, electrical stimulation, or ultrasound. Your therapist will help walk you along a plan of care that works well with what your body needs in order to get you pain free and able to walk or begin an exercise program for keeping your heart healthy!

Being overweight can also become a challenge with exercising. Typically starting with a good diet, and a heart healthy diet, will help lose the weight. When exercising, start out slow! Begin by walking 5 minutes 3x/day and work up each week 5 minutes until you reach 30 minutes. The more you move, the more you can quick start your metabolism to burn fat and calories and the more you get your blood flowing. If your joints bother you too much to walk then riding a stationary recumbent bike is helpful to take weight off your joints. Physical therapists can help you get on a program to start cardio exercise and give you a few other exercises to tone and strengthen.

There really is no excuse to not be able to get your heart healthy again! If you are suffering from gait issues, pain, or overweight and need help getting to a good exercise routine we would be happy to help! We are here to support heart health and advocate for more exercise!