Destress for a Healthier Heart
Stress. Our lives are filled with it. Whether it’s from deadlines and challenges at work, financial issues, raising teens, or caring for aging parents, stress is a normal part of everyday life.
What’s not normal—or healthy—is the toll ongoing stress can have on the heart.
Research shows a relationship between chronic stress and abnormal production of the stress hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. These are some of the same
hormones released in moments of acute stress—think a narrowly avoided car accident or witnessing a dog get hit by a car.
While these hormones serve a purpose during moments of high stress—boosting energy, improving memory, and helping us deal with difficult challenges—when they are released day after day for extended periods of time, they can have a negative impact on your heart health.
Over time, chronic stress can lead to an irregular heartbeat or palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, high blood pressure, damage to the blood vessels, and inflammation throughout the body. Persistent stress is a common factor contributing to heart attacks, heart failure, and strokes.
While ridding your life of all sources of stress is impossible, there are steps you can take to change how your body responds to it. The following are ways you can manage stress through relaxation. You can explore these approaches on your own, search for helpful videos online, or find teachers and classes locally. A local yoga studio is a great place to start.
Meditation. Meditation is a learned skill that allows you to stay focused on the present, instead of worrying about the past or future. It only takes a few minutes to meditate, and, with regular practice, the benefits can be appreciated rather quickly.
For the most success, find a quiet location with as few distractions as possible. Get your body into a comfortable position, both sitting or lying down work well. Focus your attention on a specific word, phrase, or your breath. If your mind drifts, just pull it back to focus. (FACT: Even seasoned meditators get distracted. You’re not a failure if your mind wanders.) Allow your body and mind to relax and let go of distractions and worries. Meditation takes time to master. Be patient and start with 5-10 minutes sessions and work up to whatever time you need to reclaim some calm in your life.
Progressive muscle relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation involves tightening and relaxing your muscle groups, one at a time, in a specific pattern. The goal is to release tension from your muscles and lessen stress and anxiety. Start by tensing and relaxing your toes, then your calves, your thighs, etc., all the way up to your face, tensing just one muscle group at a time. If you prefer to work in a different sequence, that’s fine. The key is to learn to recognize how to release physical tension and create a calmer state of mind.
Deep breathing. Deep breathing reduces the level of stress hormones in your blood, helping you calm down quickly, clear your mind, and focus on what you are doing. Simply take in a slow, deep breath, let your stomach or chest expand and then exhale slowly. Repeat a few times.
Yoga. Yoga combines the benefits of deep breathing and the mental focus of meditation to help relax the body and mind. Practiced in a variety of styles, yoga also works to lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol, as well as heart rate, while building strength and flexibility.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get the hang of a given technique or approach quickly. If something’s not working for you, don’t hesitate to try something new.
To learn more about heart health visit HeartTruth.gov. If you need help finding managing your stress, talk to a doctor. If you need urgent care help or are having suicidal thoughts dial 988 or go to the emergency department.
Scott Rogge, MD is a board-certified cardiology specialist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.