Chronic stress is related to all sorts of diseases—including heart disease. In fact, at least 50 percent of doctor visits have some connection to the stress in our lives.
Your body’s nervous system
Your nervous system has many divisions. The autonomic nervous system is the one that has a direct role in how your body responds to stress. It is divided into 2 parts:
- Sympathetic nervous system: Prepares the body to respond to any threats
- Parasympathetic nervous system: Controls the body when it’s at rest
Sympathetic nervous system: Run!
“When you’re experiencing stress, your sympathetic nervous system is activated,” and in high gear explains Valerie Kirby, a Sentara stress management specialist. “Your heart rate speeds up, your blood pressure increases, your muscles tense and the body secretes stress-related hormones such as cortisol.”
All of this is part of your “fight or flight response,” your body’s way of gearing up to escape from or fend off a physical threat. Think of this response as necessary for survival. “The problem is that the body reacts to stressors whether mental or physical and whether viewed as positive or negative, in much the same way with differing degrees of intensity. However, much of our stress is emotional, not physical,” says Kirby. This combined with a sedentary lifestyle and an inability to deeply relax creates an opportunity for health problems to take hold.
No matter the trigger, the body’s response leads to a chronic load of stress hormones, which can contribute to a host of unhealthy results when not counteracted, including:
- Inflammation, linked to heart disease
- Increased plaque buildup in the arteries that can lead to heart attack or stroke
- Increased glucose in the bloodstream, a risk factor for diabetes
Parasympathetic nervous system: Relax
When you make a conscious effort to relax, you’re activating your parasympathetic nervous system. And that can reverse or counteract any stress-related changes, bringing your body back to a healthier, balanced state.
Simple ways to manage stress
While it’s unrealistic to completely eliminate stress from your life, learning how to manage it better is an attainable goal. Try incorporating these stress management techniques into your everyday life:
- Take a deep breath: Simply deepening your breaths activates the parasympathetic nervous system and sends your body a message to calm down. This is an exercise you can do as part of your daily stress management program or to help calm yourself in the midst of a stressful moment (waiting for a job interview, sitting in traffic, during a child’s temper tantrum). Slow down both your inhalations and exhalations (you can try counting to 5 during each), and feel your stress levels lowering with each breath.
- Be mindful and in the moment: Meditation can be as simple as taking some time to try to clear your mind from all the chatter going on in your brain all day long. Sit quietly for a few minutes and focus on keeping your mind in the present, instead of letting it dwell on and stress about the past or the future.
- Exercise: Anything rhythmic—like brisk walking or swimming—can be a moving meditation that helps quiet the mind and reduce stress. A yoga class, which engages both your body and mind simultaneously, helps release both physical tension from the body as well as emotional stress. If you find that you are in a state of arousal and having difficulty moving to relaxation, exercise or movement is an ideal place to start. You are releasing any “bound energy” before relaxation begins.
- Have a good laugh: A hearty belly laugh increases circulation and helps the body release stress and tension. So if you’re feeling stressed, cue up a funny video on YouTube or call a friend who always makes you laugh.
Taking steps to lower your stress level—both in the moment and over the long-term—will help reduce your risk of heart disease and increase your heart health.