Since February is American Heart Month, I thought it might be a good idea to focus on some of the factors that affect our heart health. Stress is certainly at the top of that list. God designed our bodies to protect us from perceived threats by making our adrenal glands produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This is known as the fight or flight stress response. We have all felt this when we have almost had an accident while driving. In the split second that we see that accident about to happen the adrenals spring into action. The adrenaline increases our heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. The cortisol increases glucose, enhances brain use of glucose and curbs nonessential body functions. We may feel so shaken that we pull over to calm down once disaster is averted. Fortunately this stress response is self-limited and our heart rate, respirations and blood pressure return to normal.
What if the stressors in our lives happen too frequently or last too long or when the stressors are always present? Chronic stress occurs when the stress response stays turned on all the time. This chronic stress leads to prolonged exposure to stress hormones and can have adverse effects on almost every system in our bodies placing us at increased risk for multiple medical problems, including heart disease.
There are numerous sources of chronic stress in our daily lives. Examples of such stress include:
- Stress related to the pressures of the demands of work, school, finances and other daily responsibilities.
- Stress brought on by a negative life change like losing a loved one, a divorce, losing a job or being diagnosed with a life threatening illness.
- Stress related to a traumatic experience like a major accident, assault, war or a natural disaster.
Some of the many health effects of chronic stress are outlined in this illustration. The same stress response that might be life saving in a crisis, can suppress our immune, digestive, sleep and reproductive systems when it persists over time. In addition to medical problems, chronic stress can also lead to mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and panic disorders.
We are all different in how we respond to stress. Some of us, myself included, experience gastrointestinal problems when stressed. Others experience headaches, sleeplessness, sadness anger or irritability. Still others turn to food for comfort and subsequently put on excess weight.
When the stress is routine like job stress, it might go unnoticed as just a way of life. Over time, the continued strain on our bodies leads to serious conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. If you want to see an outstanding depiction of what chronic job stress can do, watch the recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy in which high-powered surgeon Miranda Bailey suffers a heart attack (Season 14, Episode 11). The combination of a stressful job, poor lifestyle choices and a genetic predisposition form the perfect storm for the development of heart disease. As an African American woman over 60 who has high blood pressure and a family history of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, I so related to the truth of this storyline.
Ways to Reduce Stress
The good news in all of this is that there are ways to manage chronic stress to reduce or prevent these adverse effects.
- Learn to recognize the signs of stress in your own body. Difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol use, being easily angered, having a lack of energy or feeling depressed might all be signs that you are stressed.
- Set goals and priorities by deciding what can be done and what can wait in any given day. Make getting a good night’s sleep a priority over “doing it all.” If you are feeling overwhelmed on your job, seek out ways to reduce your workload.
- Get regular exercise!!! I cannot emphasize this point enough. A mere 30 minutes a day of exercise can have a profound impact on your mood and reduce stress.
- Find something that relaxes you and make it a regular part of your life. It might be prayer and meditation, yoga, tai chi or a massage. Take time for hobbies, reading a good book, or listening to music.
- Learn how to enjoy a good laugh. Laughter really is good medicine.
- Stay connected with family members and friends who can provide emotional support. There is strength and healing in community!
“Dear friend, I hope all is well with you and that you are as healthy in body as you are strong in spirit.” 3 John 1:2 (NLT)