Stress on the Heart
By now, it's widely known that stress negatively impacts almost every area of our lives. So it's of no surprise that it's effects on our hearts are equally far reaching.1 While stress plays an important role of heightening our senses to escape from immediate threat and danger, in our modern world, it's most often displaced.
If you find yourself often feeling stressed, you’re anything but alone. Globally, the number of us feeling the effects of stress has been consistently rising for the last decade.2 With this being the case, and because lower stress levels lead to a healthier heart, Cardiogram likes to connect those dots. Here, we'll explore ways stress can affect heart health, and discuss several key methods for managing it.
When you are stressed, your heart is stressed. Alternatively, your ability to relax affects your heart health positively. How much stress impacts your heart health depends on the degree to which you individually experience it. And what measures you take to manage it. Some of the ways stress can affect heart heath include:
- the development of irregular heart rate and rhythm
- increased blood pressure
- reduced blood flow to the heart
- increased cholesterol levels
- greater overall risk of cardiovascular disease
...to name a few. Unfortunately, because stress is so commonplace in our world, we often dismiss it as less serious than it actually is. And in some cases, stress levels are even used as a bragging right, as if a way to measure just how hard we work. What's important to keep in mind is that it's also a direct indication of just how hard your heart is working.
8 Ways of Reducing Stress
Surely the majority of us have experienced how stress can ripple out into all areas of our lives. When under any amount of stress, we're more likely to snap at loved ones, isolate, and engage in unhealthy habits in an attempt to relieve ourselves. The danger is that all of these examples can lead to experiencing even greater stress, ultimately creating a vicious cycle that can be very difficult to get out of.
Whether you're currently in that cycle, or are simply interested in learning ways of preventing it, all of the following suggestions will help you to lead a more heart healthy life at large. Let's take a look:
Perhaps one of the most effective and widely used techniques for dealing with stress is meditation. Meditation is any practice that brings you out of your mind and into the present moment. It counteracts stress by redirecting the circular thoughts that perpetuate fight-or-flight responses, slowing down heart rate, and inducing a state of relaxation. The beauty of meditation is that you can practice it anywhere and anytime.
Practice: Start just by noticing what your hands are doing. How they're positioned. How they feel. Then scan your feet in the same way. You can do this right now, in a stressful meeting, or during a more formal meditation practice. Bringing awareness of your body automatically leads you into the present moment.
If you want to begin incorporating a more formal meditation practice, aim to start and/or end your day with it. Find or create a comfortable space in your home and devote yourself to returning to that spot daily. Once you're there, begin to allow all of your muscles to relax, scanning your body for tenseness, and noticing any thoughts that pop up. (No need to make them go away, or engage with them. Just sending them a quick "I see you there" will do). Start with a timeframe that seems manageable when beginning, like 5 minutes. If you start noticing that your mind is wandering to the point of no return, excuse yourself and commit to returning again later. Note that the amount of time you meditate is not important; far more important is the simple act of tuning in at all. Even just one minute of concentrated internal focus each day makes a greater impact.
Come Back to Your Breath
Similar to meditation, regularly practicing breath work is a great way to take you out of fight or flight and back into your body. The key for lowering stress and heart rate is taking long, deep breaths. The longer and slower each breath is, the more you will begin to relax. There are so many techniques available; however, one of the simplest that you can practice anytime is a 4-4-4 breath pattern.
Practice: The 4-4-4 breathing technique is a great practice, especially in moments when you begin to feel stress and anxiety arise. Start by taking a deep inhale through your nose, counting to 4. Then breathe out from your mouth for another 4-count. And hold for 4. Repeat by breathing in through your nose... 2... 3... 4... Out the mouth... 2... 3... 4... Hold... 2... 3... 4... Repeat...
When practicing this exercise, you'll quickly notice yourself sinking into a greater state of relaxation. Setting time aside in the morning or evening to practice this technique can also help to lower your overall stress levels, and set the tone for the day or night. Additionally, it works the muscle memory, so that it becomes more and more natural to incorporate into daily life.
Engage in Regular Exercise
Science continues to show time and again that there's a direct correlation between regular exercise and reduced stress levels. One reason is that engaging in heart-pumping activities releases endorphins, or the "feel-good" chemical. While it can be hard to begin making exercise a part of your routine initially, (because after all, if you're stressed, you likely don't "feel up to" working out), just remember that exercise is actually what you need to combat that feeling. Plus, you'll naturally be strengthening your heart simultaneously. Exercise also helps you to refocus your thoughts and energy as you become more present, allowing the worries of the day to naturally melt away.
Practice: Note that the type of movement you choose to engage in doesn't matter, so long as you actually do it, and get your heart pumping hard enough. Whether you prefer yoga, dancing, swimming or skipping down the block, it will all help to alleviate your stress.
Reduce the Amount of Stimulation
in Your Life
Our world is full of stimulation. From the food we eat to social media, streaming options on the television, and the constant slew of activities we always have the option of participating in, our brains and bodies are overworked. And over-stimulated. This vast amount of stimulation greatly contributes to our racing minds, which are directly linked to increased stress levels. Plus, the rate at which we've been introduced to these stimulants surpasses the rate at which we're naturally built to adapt to them. In order to slow down and reintroduce our minds and hearts to a more deeply relaxed state, we ought to declutter the amount of stimulation in our lives.
Practice: Start with what's easiest. For you, that could mean setting a timer for scrolling or TV time. Or choosing less caffeinated, processed, spicy or fried foods and sticking to those that are more natural and easy to digest. Physically decluttering your space and creating a calming environment can also help to invite a more relaxed state.
Stress becomes far worse when we try to bottle it up. Not only that, but keeping it all trapped inside also heightens our perception of loneliness, which again increases stress levels. Find ways of expressing yourself and free yourself of carrying the burden on your own.
Practice: Some ways include journaling, seeking therapy, creating through art, or simply confiding in a trusted loved one. The burden of stress is far too heavy to carry on your own. Offer yourself the relief.