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Reduce your stress to protect your heart

August 10, 2011
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A growing body of evidence suggests that psychological factors are — literally — heartfelt, and can contribute to cardiac risk, according to the latest edition of HEALTHbeat, a newsletter from the Harvard Medical School.

 Stress from challenging situations and events plays a significant role in cardiovascular symptoms and outcome, particularly heart attack risk. Depression, anxiety, anger, hostility, and social isolation also affect cardiovascular health. Each of these factors heightens your chances of developing heart problems, according to HEALTHbeat. But emotional issues are often intertwined: people who have one commonly have another. 

 Many studies have documented that various forms of stress can take a toll on the heart: 

 Workplace stress.Women whose work is highly stressful have a 40% increased risk of heart disease (including heart attacks and the need for coronary artery surgery) compared with their less-stressed colleagues. These findings come from the Women’s Health Study (WHS), which included more than 17,000 female health professionals.

 Financial stress.Heart attacks rose as the stock market crashed, according to a 2010 report in The American Journal of Cardiology. Researchers at Duke University reviewed medical records for 11,590 people who had undergone testing for heart disease during a three-year period, and then compared monthly heart attack rates with stock market levels. Heart attacks increased steadily during one eight-month period — September 2008 to March 2009 — that was particularly bad for the stock market.

 Caregiver stress.Women who cared for a disabled spouse for at least nine hours a week were significantly more at risk of having a heart attack or dying from heart disease compared with women who had no caregiving duties, according to findings from the Nurses’ Health Study. This large study followed more than 54,000 female nurses over a four-year period.

 Stress-easing strategies

While you can’t change the world around you, the following lifestyle changes can help you minimize your stress level:

Get enough sleep.Lack of sound sleep can affect your mood, mental alertness, energy level, and physical health.

 Exercise.Physical activity alleviates stress and reduces your risk of becoming depressed — and it is good for your all-around health.

 Learn relaxation techniques.Meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, deep breathing exercises, and yoga are mainstays of stress relief. Your local hospital or community center may offer meditation or yoga classes, or you can learn about these techniques from books or videos.

 Learn time-management skills.These skills can help you juggle work and family demands.

 Confront stressful situations head-on.Don’t let stressful situations fester. Hold family problem-solving sessions and use negotiation skills at work.

 Nurture yourself.Treat yourself to a massage. Truly savor an experience: eat slowly, focusing on each bite of that orange, or soak up the warm rays of the sun or the scent of blooming flowers during a walk outdoors. Take a nap. Enjoy the sounds of music you find calming.

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