Tips to keep stress from hurting your heart

Everyone reacts to stress differently, and how you react can impact the chance of developing serious health issues, including heart disease.

Your body’s response to stress may include muscle aches and headaches, back strain, stomach pains, and other physical symptoms. Stress also can make you tired, disturb normal sleep patterns, and leave you irritable, forgetful and out of control. When stress is constant, your body remains in high gear for days or weeks, which can lead to more significant health problems.

Periods of excessive and pervasive stress can result in direct effects on health, such as high blood pressure and higher cholesterol levels. Indirect impacts, such as increasing behaviors and habits that worsen physical health and functioning, include smoking, overeating or engaging in less physical activity.

Managing stress levels always is a good idea when it comes to your overall health. Studies are underway looking more closely into how managing stress reduces risk for heart disease given the direct effects of stress on health. Patients who have experienced a heart attack or stroke and feel depressed, anxious or overwhelmed by stress should contact their health care team for additional help.

Reducing stress can take many forms. Understanding your triggers and identifying your stress symptoms can start the stress management process. Then you’ll be able to recognize and modify triggers of heightened stress levels. The first step in altering your stress response is to identify stressors and ask yourself, “What can I stop doing, and what can I let go of?”

After you have removed or modified external stressors, it’s time to build specific management skills and techniques. Many things can be done to manage stress and build resources. As a psychologist, I typically ask people to adopt things from each of these categories: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

A few ideas to adopt include:

  • Harness your strengths.
    Reflect: “I feel most energetic, fulfilled and full of life when I am doing …”
  • Take part in social activities.
    Chat with a colleague or loved one, or catch up with an old friend virtually.
  • Give to others.
    Try volunteering or performing a random act of kindness.
  • Start something.
    Be creative, and try it for five minutes to begin with.
  • Begin to journal.
    Be mindful of your daily life.

There are several things you can do to relieve stress in your life, including:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Challenge negative and catastrophic thoughts.
  • Avoid smoking and caffeine.
  • Eat foods with high nutritional value.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.

In some situations, medicine can help. However, when it comes to stress, medication often is used as a last resort. Instead, look to manage the stress you are experiencing using relaxation or other learned stress reduction techniques. Also, make sure you’re not confusing stress for an anxiety disorder, which is a separate condition you should discuss with your health care team.

Yes, stress can be good for you. “Good” stress can come from weddings, a job you love or your children. Many of the things you love also can be some of the most significant challenges at times.

Everyone needs a little stress for motivation to meet the daily challenges and ultimately promote optimal functioning in daily life. Stress that’s managed can enhance focus and concentration, move you to connect more with others and provide you with a sense of mastery, which promotes better health.

Lisa Hardesty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Psychiatry & Psychology at Mayo Clinic Health System.

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