The Impact of Stress on Heart Health

So I read this absolutely fabulous book by Dr. Mimi Guarneri, a cardiologist who writes about integrative healing. As you can imagine, given my cardiac arrest earlier this year, the issues of stress, lifestyle wellness, and how to heal – especially from the perspective of a cardiologist, is a really appealing topic to me right now. Even more so than it was prior to my incident.

I’m getting to my general point I promise, but I use my own experience to illustrate what a sneaky little bastard stress can be.

I’ve always gotten a few things right. I’ve practiced yoga for 11 years now, and started to dive much deeper into the mindfulness and meditative aspects of the practice for the past few years. I knew for quite some time that I needed to significantly reduce my stress levels, and had been making major strides towards accomplishing that goal. I massively cut back on a job that was giving me what I now recognize as small cardiac episodes on a regular basis. I was sleeping more, resting more, exercising more, and eating healthier than I had in a long while.

However, this is where stress gets serious. Or rather, where we should stop joking about busy-ness and take the stress we experience seriously. Once our body adapts to high levels of stress, we start to consider all the stress-related symptoms as normal.

Depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, premature aging, inflammation, anger, mood swings, memory loss – these are all just a few symptoms of chronic stress.

Our bodies are designed so we can handle acute stress, which means stress that happens for just a little bit then goes away. Something happens, we freak out and experience fight, flight or freeze, then the threat goes away and our body and nervous system should rinse out those stress chemicals and reset to a relaxed state. That’s how it’s supposed to work anyways.

However, when our body doesn’t get a chance to reset before the next stressor comes along, that’s when there’s a problem. When the stress just keeps on going, keeps on building, never releasing, that’s when we experience what’s called chronic stress. Chronic stress is continuous, constant, high-level stress.

Whenever we experience stress, our body produces three hormones (for my science nerds out there, they’re called cortisol, adrenaline, and aldosterone). These chemicals are sort of like our body’s internal panic system that help us adapt to and escape threatening situations. However, when our body produces these chemicals on a regular basis, they do more harm than good.

These chemicals disrupt the way our body processes sugar and electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, which are all SUPER important ingredients for how our hearts function.

Now neither myself nor the author of that book I mentioned are saying that we should be afraid of any and all stress. Some “stress” is good. That type comes in the form of a challenge, invites us to perform at our best, we rise to the task, feel good about it, finish with it, and it subsides. Stress comes when we feel overwhelmed. When there’s too much on our plates, or we don’t feel like we’re capable of handling it all or performing well.

So yes, to a certain extent, our perception of stress plays an important role. But after a certain point, reducing stress really just comes down to doing less. Not more. Less. Cutting ourselves some slack and giving ourselves a break.

What are 1-2 simple tasks, habits, etc., that you can eliminate from your days to cause less stress for yourself? Maybe this means you only watch one episode on Netflix instead of binge-watch 20. Maybe it means you delegate some responsibility, or only clean your home every two weeks instead of every week. Maybe you only double check something instead of triple check it. Maybe it’s a larger lifestyle overhaul like downsizing your home so you have less to clean and organize.

Or it could be something like this example:

In Dr. Guarneri’s book, she writes about a war vet with PTSD who was having regular heart failure and constantly going to the emergency room. He’d tried all sorts of other medical care, and nothing seemed to be helping, until his wife made a connection. She noticed that, each time her husband watched a particularly violent war movie, or an intense sporting event, he would almost always have a major heart failure. She took charge and put him on a Disney-channel viewing only diet. Ever since he stopped watching any violent movies or sporting events, his heart failure stopped.

If you experience high stress or anxiety, perhaps you could switch from Game of Thrones to comedies instead?

Don’t worry, being kind to yourself doesn’t mean you’re being lazy.

It just means you’re giving yourself enough of a rest to be at your best for the next challenge.

Interested in learning more about how to reduce stress? Stay tuned for next week’s post on practical tips to reduce your stress. 




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