Stress, as a risk factor for heart disease, has received a lot of scrutiny lately.
The fact is the experts do not yet fully understand all the ways that stress impacts our bodies. There are a lot of theories as well as some generally agreed upon results.
What is stress?There are two kinds of stress: physical and emotional. Physical stress is generally considered to be good for our health as long as it's not excessive, and includes most forms of exercise. For the purpose of this Bulletin, we are dealing with emotional stress.
Stress is a necessary part of our physiological makeup. In our evolutionary past, it prepared us for the "fight or flight" response when faced with danger. The hormones adrenaline and cortisol were pumped into our system to enable us to take the appropriate action such as defense against wild animals.
Today we rarely need that "fight or flight" response to situations... it's just not appropriate in civil society (in most cases!).
However, stress still causes the same hormones to be released into our bodies. And that may cause problems for those with chronic stress.
For example, these hormones cause our blood pressure to rise (due to the constriction of the arterioles (the tiny blood vessels that branch out to the skin and other parts of the body), the amount of blood sugar to increase (to provide the necessary energy for the fight or flight response), the heart rate to increase (for the same reason), and the immune system is suppressed, and other reactions.
On occasion this if fine, but if one is feeling chronically stressed the body does not have a chance to return to its normal state. The result is often high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and a weakened immune system.
Your reaction to stressEverybody has some stress in their lives. Eliminating stress is not realistic and is not really an option.
Understanding your own reaction to stressful situations, and possibly learning how to better deal with them, may be an important skill that will lead to reduced risk of stress induced heart disease.
Let's explore some of the accepted effects of stress on your body. The first thing to bear in mind is that everyone reacts differently to stress.
What you might find invigorating and stimulating another person may find extremely stressful. No two people respond to stress in the same way.
This, incidentally, is one of the challenges that researchers face in studying stress: people have wildly varying responses when exposed to identical stimulus.
Studies have shown that those who live with chronic or ongoing stress are more likely to smoke, overeat, and exercise less, all of which are major risk factors for heart disease.
The adrenalin rush that accompanies extreme stress can cause the blood to clot too readily, and that can lead to heart attacks. So while research into the direct affect of stress on our health continues, the impact on other risk factors is a serious concern for cardiovascular health.
Managing StressWhile we may not know all we need to about stress, it is clear that stress management is an important strategy for our heart health.
There are some important questions you can ask yourself about your reactions when faced with stressful situations. By understanding how you are dealing with stress, you will be in a better position to adjust your responses to a more healthy approach and, if necessary, seek professional help.
As you read these questions, answer honestly... usually your first impulse is accurate.
1. Are you quick to anger (i.e., do you yell, pound the steering wheel, and lean on the horn when someone takes longer than you think they should when the light changes)?
2. Do you frequently feel hostile to others (i.e., do you feel strong resentment or bitterness towards someone who gets promoted)?
3. Are you a classic Type A personality (i.e., impatient, highly competitive, always in a hurry)?
4. Are you in a state of chronic physical tension (i.e., clenched jaw, tense muscles, indigestion)?
5. Do you feel mentally fatigued, forgetful, constantly worried, unable to concentrate, burnt out?
6. Do you have a lot of anxiety (i.e., crying, nervous, irritable, mood swings, insecure)?
7. Do you frequently drink, smoke or use drugs to excess?
8. Do you frequently over or under eat?
9. Do you get a lot of headaches?
10. Do you experience a lot of unexplained aches and pains such as cramps, back pain, chest pain, stomach aches, and muscle pains?
12. Are you becoming socially withdrawn?
13. Are your relationships in an unusual amount of conflict?
14. Are you tired and feel you have difficulty getting enough sleep?
b>15. Has your productivity decreased?
Answering yes to several of these questions is an indication that you might be dealing with excessive stress or not effectively managing the stress in your life.
If you are concerned, you should talk to your doctor or other health professional.
Try some Humor Therapy!Laughter is the jam on the toast of life, it adds flavor, keeps it from being too dry and it makes it easier to swallow.
First, it is NOT a replacement for whatever other treatments or therapies you are currently undergoing. But you can - and should - use humor as much as you can in your life. It's painless, inexpensive, risk-free, and is available to you at every turn... as long as you're looking for it. In other words, look for opportunities to exercise your "laugh muscles"!
As with research into the all the affects of stress on our health, more research is needed into the impact of humor and laughter.
But the following are known: a hearty laugh increases your pulse and heart rate, supplies you with extra oxygen and ventilates your lungs, stimulates blood circulation, and helps ease muscle tension. And that has to be good for you!
There are formal humor or laughter therapists and programs, but what we are suggesting is some "self-administration"... a do-it-yourself approach to getting more humor and laughter into your life!
Check out our Laughter Page for more information and resources!
Good luck with your stress management. There are many resources available to help you, a few of which are listed in the top right column of this newsletter. Also, visit the Stress Management page of the Smart Heart Living website.
We welcome your comments and feedback as well as suggestions on what has worked well for you in managing your stress.