Heart Month: Changing your response to stress
Thursday, February 21, 2019

A small amount of stress can be healthy – the kind that propels you to meet deadlines and get things done and accomplished. However, research has shown that chronic and excessive stress may be as bad for your heart as eating a high-fat diet and having a sedentary lifestyle is.

Stress & the heart

A study using brain scans of the amygdala (the brain’s fear and stress centre) shows the connection between stress and heart problems. This study showed that people who had increased activity in their amygdala had more inflammation in both their arteries and their bone marrow. As time went on (up to 5 years later) those whose amygdala showed consistently increased activity were 60% more likely to have a heart attack.

Other research also shows the link between stressful events and the risk of heart disease. One study showed, for example, that divorce (a stressful event) significantly increased the risk of heart attack for both men and women. Stress can also indirectly increase the risk of heart disease, as people who are stressed tend to have poor coping behaviours such as poor sleep, smoking, drinking or binge eating.

Studies have shown that overeating was associated with a 3.7 fold increased risk of heart attack and that insomnia was associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

The good news is that even though stress can feel like it’s out of your control, it is in fact all in your head. You create the stress response using the power of your own thoughts, so by the same token you can also create your own sense of calm.

Stress-busting tips

To help you outsmart your amygdala and in turn reduce your risk of developing heart disease, we have collated our 6 top stress-busting strategies.

1. Focus on your breath

When you feel stressed – whether this is at the doctor’s office in the waiting room or just before a major presentation at work, it is important to focus on your breathing. This will redirect your attention from what is making you feel stressed. As long as you focus on your stressful thoughts, they feel real to you, however the moment you consciously take your focus off them, they tend to dissolve.

According to the American Heart Association, breathing exercises can help manage stress and thus lower the risk of heart disease. Any sort of deep breathing or refocusing can get us back to a less inflammatory state.

One way to do this is to breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 2 seconds and exhale slowly for 6 seconds. Repeat this until your mind feels less chaotic and stressed.

2. Take a phone break

When you’re waiting in line at the supermarkets or waiting to hear the barista call your name in Starbucks, try not to be so tempted to go on your phone. Instead, attempt to stand there and allow your brain a break from being stimulated all the time. Our brains need natural rest periods throughout the day to recoup and prepare for the next challenge, situation or experience that comes our way. Filling this rest time with your eyes glued to your phone screen is not going to give your brain this preparation and recovery time it needs.

3. Create a schedule

To lessen the low-level stressors that may affect you in your everyday life, make a list of what stresses you and throws you off the most so you can also find a solution. For example, if something routine such as cooking dinner every day gets your worked up, try to plan your menu for the week and you will find your week will happen on a much calmer level.

4. Prioritise

If you are the kind of individual who feels extreme stress and pressure when it comes to accomplishing the tasks on your to-do list ASAP, create two separate lists: one to-do list and one to-do-soon list for tasks that are not quite as urgent. By using this dual list method, you can stop worrying that you are going to forget something and not feel so pressured to get everything done immediately.

5. Work it out

To minimise the effects of stress, one of the most useful and important things you can do it to move every day. The recommended 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise per week (i.e. brisk walking) produces endorphins, which are the feel-good chemicals in your brain that help you feel calm and sleep better, in turn keeping stress at bay.

To ensure you stick with it, pick an activity you genuinely enjoy. Whatever activity you choose, doing so outdoors is also extremely helpful for clearing the mind. If you choose to exercise in a group, this can also become a strong support system for you.

If you’re feeling really stressed, a quick trick is to move really fast for a minute. Try it – jog on the spot, move from foot to foot or rapidly shake your hands out in the air - this type of movement helps you get out of your mind and focus on your physical body instead.

6. Have more fun

The more you practice taking care of yourself and the more you have enjoyable experiences, the less reactive you will be when outside stressors rear their ugly heads. Give some thought to the stressful aspects of your life and figure out how to make them more enjoyable.

For example, if you find your morning commute hectic and stressful, perhaps start listening to podcasts or audiobooks on your journey to make this time more enjoyable. It’s about experimenting and seeing what works best for you to dissolve any stress.

young woman exercising outdoors with a healthy heart