Heart Health and Stress: Tips to Keep Stress from Hurting Your Heart

February is American Heart Month. Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States? Fortunately, it's also one of the most preventable. 

To help spread the word about the importance of heart health, we're highlighting a few different ways you can reduce stress—one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. 

Stress can be pretty rough on the body. Managing it always is a good idea when it comes to your overall health. Your body's response may include muscle aches and headaches, back strain, or stomach pains. Stress also can make you exhausted, disrupt your regular sleep patterns, and leave you feeling irritable, forgetful, and out of control. And when the stress is constant, your body stays in overdrive, which can lead to even bigger health issues.

Studies suggest that high levels of cortisol—the body's stress hormone–from long-term stress can increase cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure, which are all common risk factors for heart disease. Plus, there are a lot of indirect impacts from stress, like increasing behaviors and habits that worsen your physical health. These can include smoking, overcommitting to plans and not finding time to rest, overeating, or engaging in less physical activity.

Here are a few ways to prevent stress from damaging your heart health.

First, start the stress management process

Before you begin some stress-reduction techniques, you need to identify what is triggering your stress, and understand how your body responds to it. Then you'll be able to recognize and modify triggers of your heightened stress levels. Ask yourself, "What can I stop doing, and what can I let go of?"

After you have a better grasp on external stress factors, you can build management skills and techniques. 

Ways to reduce stress

Luckily, there are so many different ways you can reduce stress. It's all about finding what works best for you. Journaling not your thing? No problem. Not every technique is going to work for everybody. Try to find 2-3 options that work for your lifestyle.

Here are a few ways you can manage your stress:

Exercise on the regular.

It can relieve stress, tension, anxiety, and depression. If you've got the time, consider going for a hike, or trying a quick meditation session or some yoga.

Make time for friends and family—but not too much.

Yes, it’s good to maintain social connections and spend time with the people you love and trust. Relationships are incredibly important for our overall happiness. However, it's just as important to give yourself alone time and not overbook your calendar. It can be difficult to say "no" to others, but it can help you in the long run. When you have a packed schedule, make sure you set aside some time to rest.

Get enough sleep.

Catching your Zzz's is more important than you think. Survey findings show that stress may be getting in the way of quality sleep. This lack of sleep can lead to even higher levels of stress, frustration, depression, and anxiety. Try to aim for at least 7–9 hours a night.

Maintain a positive attitude.

It can be hard to remain positive in challenging situations, but it can help you avoid a lot of stress. For example, instead of stressing and getting overwhelmed about being stuck in a traffic jam, try reframing the situation. Appreciate that you have your own car and get to spend a few extra minutes listening to music or your favorite podcast, accepting that there is absolutely nothing you can do about the traffic.

Listen to music.

Studies have shown that listening to music can be an effective tool for reducing stress. Music has the power to evoke emotions, relax the mind, and even change brain functioning, leading to a significant reduction in stress levels.

Try volunteering.

Volunteering reduces stress and increases positive, relaxed feelings by releasing dopamine. By spending time helping others, volunteers report feeling a sense of meaning and appreciation—both given and received—which can have a stress-reducing effect on the body.

Find a new hobby.

Hobbies can bring a sense of fun and freedom to our lives, which can minimize the impact of chronic stress. Those who feel overwhelmed at work, for example, can benefit from hobbies as an outlet for stress and something to look forward to after a long and busy day.

Eat foods with nutritional value.

When our bodies are poorly fed, stress takes an even greater toll on our health. Try incorporating more veggies and fruits, leafy greens, fiber, and unsaturated fats into your diet to boost your mood. 

Avoid smoking.

Some people smoke to ease feelings of stress. However, research has shown that smoking actually increases anxiety and tension. Nicotine creates an immediate sense of relaxation, so people believe that it helps reduce their stress and anxiety. But, this feeling is temporary and gives way to withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Get your thoughts down on paper.

Similar to talking to a friend after a rough day, journaling can be a way of venting and getting things off your mind. You can pour your heart out and express your frustrations—it can be really healing.

As stress activates the “fight or flight response” of the sympathetic nervous system, journaling will activate the “rest and digest” response of the parasympathetic nervous system. It regulates your breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate, which helps you think more clearly as well.

In some situations, medicine can help reduce stress levels. However, it's often used as a last resort. Instead, try to manage your stress with relaxation or some of the other stress reduction techniques from above.

We hope these stress tips will help you stay active and keep your heart healthy. At OnSite Wellness LLC, health and wellness is our specialty.

Incorporating a wellness program at your workplace can have massive benefits for your employees in managing their health. Contact us to learn more!