February 4th, 2020

How Relieving Stress Can Help Heal Your Heart

If you experienced a cardiac event – such as a heart attack, bypass surgery, heart valve repair or coronary stenting – you have probably heard over and over about the importance of “lifestyle changes” to improve your heart health. More vegetables. Less meat. Regular exercise.

But there’s one piece of the recovery puzzle that you may be overlooking while you’re busy steaming kale and buying a fitness tracker: stress management. That’s why learning how to manage your stress is one of the cornerstones of the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program at Sentara Heart.

How stress affects your heart

“Chronic stress creates wear and tear on your body – including on your heart,” explains Valerie Kirby, a Sentara stress management specialist. “There is a clear connection between heart disease and being in a state of stress-induced hyperarousal all the time.”

What is “stress-induced hyperarousal?” When you experience a stressful situation, your body responds by speeding up your heart rate, increasing your blood pressure and releasing stress-related hormones, such as cortisol. All of your systems are on high alert.

Over time, these changes take a toll on your heart health. And for anyone who’s already been diagnosed with heart disease, the results can be devastating. But the good news is that while you can’t avoid stress, you can manage it, and improve your heart health in the process.

Proven ways to manage your stress

The Ornish Lifestyle Medicine is a 9-week intensive cardiac rehab program. Each week consists of 2 sessions that are 4 hours each, where you learn how to eat a plant-based diet, increase your activity, connect with your group and manage your stress. At each session, you and your fellow participants spend 1 hour working with a stress management specialist to learn effective relaxation techniques. “We all have stress in our lives, and that may not change,” says Kirby. “But what you can change is how you handle that stress and learn to defuse it.”

The Ornish program teaches 5 techniques, which you practice at each of your sessions as well as on your own. Kirby adds that, “It’s your ‘prescription’ to do this every day.” These techniques include:

  • Yoga and gentle stretching
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Guided imagery
  • Breathing exercises
  • Meditation

She adds that research shows that more is better when it comes to stress management. Those who do 60 minutes or more of relaxation techniques throughout the day show more health improvements than those who do less. “Participants find that their normally short fuses get longer, their thinking becomes calmer and clearer, and they start to sleep better,” says Kirby.

Emotional support is essential

Another key component of the Ornish program is a 1-hour group discussion, where participants have a chance to forge connections with each other. “Loneliness, isolation and lack of emotional support can increase your chances of having another cardiac event,” says Kirby. The goals of these sessions are to:

  • Know yourself better
  • Allow others to know you
  • Know others better

Building those connections, learning to listen to each other without judgment and paying more attention to your own feelings are skills that you use long after the session is over. “There is a ripple effect on the rest of your life – in the way you interact with friends and family,” says Kirby. These group sessions are crucial: “Participants often tell me, ‘I’m really glad I didn’t try to do this by myself.’”

Putting it all together for your heart

By the end of the program, participants often find that doing daily stress management exercises becomes ingrained in their lifestyle. Just as they make time to eat better and exercise, they start setting aside time every day to practice yoga, deep breathing or other relaxation techniques. The result is a calmer mind and a healthier heart.

Ready to take charge of your heart health? Call us at 1-757-507-8820 to speak with an Ornish program specialist.