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!


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