Constant stress — whether from a traffic-choked daily commute, unhappy marriage, or heavy workload — can have real physical effects on the body. It has been linked to a wide range of health issues, including mood, sleep, and appetite problems — and yes, even heart disease.
The connection between chronic stress and heart disease isn’t well defined. It has been suggested that stress triggers inflammation, a known instigator of heart disease, but that hasn’t been proven. “I think the conventional opinion is that stress is bad for your heart, but the data are much murkier,” says Dr. Deepak Bhatt, director of the Integrated Interventional Cardiovascular Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Yet stress may influence heart disease in more subtle ways. “Stress does cause some people to act in ways that increase their risk for heart disease,” Dr. Bhatt says. For example, when stressed, people often eat unhealthy food and don’t have the energy or time to exercise. Stress can also lead us into other heart-damaging behaviors, such as smoking and drinking too much alcohol.
Managing unhealthy habits
Breaking the connection requires both learning to deal with stress and managing unhealthy habits. These five simple tips can help you do just that:
Stay positive. Laughter has been found to lower levels of stress hormones, reduce inflammation in the arteries, and increase “good” HDL cholesterol.
Meditate. This practice of inward-focused thought and deep breathing has been shown to reduce heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure. Meditation’s close relatives, yoga and prayer, can also relax the mind and body.
Exercise. Every time you are physically active, whether you take a walk or play tennis, your body releases mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins. Exercising not only melts away stress, it also protects against heart disease by lowering your blood pressure, strengthening your heart muscle, and helping you maintain a healthy weight.
Unplug. It’s impossible to escape stress when it follows you everywhere. Cut the cord. Avoid emails and TV news. Take time each day — even if it’s for just 10 or 15 minutes — to escape from the world.
Find ways to take the edge off your stress. Simple things, like a warm bath, listening to music, or spending time on a favorite hobby, can give you a much-needed break from the stressors in your life.
Exercise is an effective stress-buster
If exercise were available as a pill, experts say, everyone would be taking it. One reason is that exercise is very good at defusing stress. If you exercise — especially right when the stress response is triggered — you burn off stress hormones just as nature intended, instead of letting them pile up.
What’s more, just about any form of motion on a regular basis helps relieve pent-up tension. Rhythmic, repetitive movements, such as walking, running, swimming, bicycling, and rowing — and specific types of exercise such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong — actually elicit the relaxation response, too. Regularly engaging in these kinds of activities can help you ward off everyday stress.
To boost the stress-relief rewards, you’ll need to shift your attention to become aware of yourself — what and how you’re feeling — and your surroundings during exercise. This should leave you feeling calmer and more centered.
During physical activity, try to become aware of how your breathing complements the activity. Breathe rhythmically, repeating the focus word, phrase, or prayer you’ve chosen. Coordinate your breathing with your movements, focusing your attention mindfully on the sensations in your body. When disruptive thoughts intrude, gently turn your mind away from them and focus on moving and breathing.
You don’t need to sign up for a yoga class or lace up your running shoes. A simple mindful walk can do wonders. As you walk, expand your awareness to the sights and smells around you. Notice the freshly mown grass, flowers, fallen leaves, sun-dappled trees, or gray clouds. How does the outside air feel against your body? How does the surface beneath your feet feel and sound? What thoughts are moving through your head?
For more tips that can help you to recognize, manage, and reduce stress, buy Stress Management, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.