In today’s world, stress is an everyday affliction. And it’s a known fact that chronic stress can take a physical toll on your general health and wellbeing. While more research is needed to determine exactly how stress might affect heart disease, we know that stress can contribute indirectly by influencing certain risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating. By engaging in unhealthy behaviours to manage stress levels, we are also potentially damaging artery walls. So it is important to learn and practice healthier ways of managing the everyday stress we face.
First of all, let’s look at how stress affects the human body. When we face a stressful situation, our bodies release adrenaline—a hormone that temporarily causes our breathing and heart to speed up and blood pressure to rise. While this reaction prepares our bodies and minds to handle a “fight or flight” situation, it can be harmful when facing long spells of chronic stress. And with all the ways we can experience stress nowadays this state of chronic stress is much more common.
So how can we safely manage our stress levels? Several methods are being studied in relation to their impact on heart disease, but there are also several tried and true methods good for your general health. The trick is to find the one that works best for you—or perhaps the few that work for you as different methods work in different situations.
When it comes to stress, social connectedness has strong psychological and physiological benefits. We are social creatures and spending time engaging in social activity—whether one-on-one, in a group, with family or with friends—increases our feelings of security and self-worth while promoting a support network.
Physical activity is also a great stress buster. When we engage in physical activity, our bodies release endorphins, which improve our mood. Regular exercise can lessen symptoms associated with anxiety, and improve sleep, which is often interrupted by chronic stress. It also promotes a singular focus on one physical task—your arm stroke in the pool, or your swing in tennis—that allows you to release outside stressors and remain clear and calm. And if you are looking for a physical activity that promotes a high level of singular focus—or mindfulness—try your hand at yoga.
Yoga has become quite popular as more people want to try mindfulness and meditation. However, yoga is only one vehicle through which you can practice this calming technique. You can also go spend time in nature or even use your own house. Essentially, mindfulness is a state of open, active attention to the present, often trained through meditative practices. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts, sensations and feelings from a distance, without judgment. It helps you to tune into your own body and its reactions. There are many detailed classes and literature about mindfulness, but an easy way to get started is to simply sit in a quiet place and begin focusing on your breathing. Acknowledge your thoughts and distractions without judgment and then try to bring your focus back to nothing but your breathing. You’ll likely have to do this several times, but it is all part of the practice. Continue like this for several minutes and over time your ability to focus should improve.
These are but a few ways you can try to healthfully manage your stress. Ultimately, people who are feeling overwhelmed with stress should speak with their healthcare professional. He or she will help you come up with a plan appropriate for your needs.