By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
When I was 13, I got my first lesson in how profoundly stress can affect our health. It happened when my grandmother died suddenly of a stroke after the oil heater in her basement began smoking. I remember my dad explaining to me that the stroke had happened because she’d become “emotionally upset.”
I understood what he was saying, but being a young teen, I didn’t fully appreciate it. Now, though, I see the situation through much more sophisticated eyes. The fear, anger, and confusion she must have felt at not being able to control the problem overwhelmed her and ultimately were fatal.
More than 50 years later, that tragic experience is still with me. So, too, are the experiences of dozens of others that have shown me time and time again just how powerful the effects of stress can be. They have convinced me that what happens in our minds is just as important as what happens in our bodies when it comes to health and long life.
Dis-Ease = Disease
Stress is literally being in a state of “dis-ease.” Just think about how you feel when you’re under stress. You’re probably tense, irritable, maybe jumpy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you have trouble sleeping.
Sometimes stress comes from sudden, unexpected events, like the one that my grandmother faced. But more often, our feelings of overwhelm come from day-to-day situations that require us to do things that are out of step with our essential nature—things that we simply don’t want or like to do, things that frustrate or frighten us, or things that make us feel inadequate in some way.
Maybe a job is overwhelming or soul-crushing, but you stay in it because you need the money.
Maybe you don’t feel loved and supported in your marriage, or other close relationship.
Or, maybe you spend all your time caring for other people and have nothing left for yourself when the day is over.
When we ignore our own feelings so we can “do what we need to do,” we’re cutting ourselves off from the innate intelligence that we all have inside of us—that which steers us away from things that are harmful, and toward things that will keep us happy and healthy. Or as I like to say, we’re cutting ourselves off from the “voice of the heart.”
Over time, this disconnection, or dis-ease, can grow into actual disease.
Specific Effects of Stress on the Heart
The heart and cardiovascular system is especially vulnerable to the effects of stress. Whether acute or chronic, stress causes the body to release hormones that—
- Activate the inflammatory process and contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis)
- Constrict the arteries and drive up blood pressure and heart rate, which require the heart to work harder and increase the chances that a plaque will rupture
- Lower heart rate variability, which is associated with higher probability of heart attack and stroke
- Thicken the blood, making it more likely to clot
- Increase the risk for arrhythmias or a racing heart beat
- Cause us to crave sugar, sweets, and other high-glycemic foods that stoke inflammation and promote weight gain and insulin resistance
- Deplete the body of important heart health nutrients, such as magnesium and B-complex vitamins
- Cause us to fall back on bad habits like smoking, eating fast food, and skipping exercise
- Increase the risk for—or cause—heart attacks and strokes
When you look at this list, it’s easy to see how someone can go from having an intense argument to lying on a gurney in the emergency room. It also demonstrates just how crucial it is that you remain balanced—physically and emotionally—when faced with stress, and not let those anxious feelings get the best of you.
How to Best Handle the Effects of Stress
There will always be times in our lives when we feel pressure, fear, and judgment that will trigger our stress response. Anyone who’s ever watched a child run into a street, faced an angry family member or boss, or lost a loved one knows this is true.
We can’t stop stress—but we can learn how to manage stressful times, and we can learn how to identify the issues that drive long-term stress. Here six suggestions:
- Get familiar with the best techniques for managing stress. Things like Earthing, meditation, and alternate nostril breathing can help lower cortisol levels and offset stress’s effects in the body.
- Stick to a Mediterranean-style diet full of high-vibrational foods. Not only will this help improve your body’s resiliency to stress, but it will reduce the likelihood that you’ll turn to fast food, sugary snacks, or alcohol to cope with frayed nerves. Pick a few foods to focus on—like extra virgin olive oil—and try to work them into every meal.
- Be “fully present.” One of the ways we create stress for ourselves is by ruminating over what happened an hour ago, or worrying about what will happen an hour from now—or a day from now, or even a month from now. You can counteract those feelings by training your mind to be focused only on what you’re doing right now, at this moment. Sometimes you’ll hear this practice referred to as mindfulness, or “being fully present.” It’s simple. Whenever you find yourself thinking about something other than what you’re doing, simply bring your attention back to the present task. Don’t scold yourself for having a wandering mind; just come back to what you’re doing and continue with it. This can help reduce stressful feelings and will also help you be more more effective in managing day-to-day responsibilities.
- Take a self-inventory. Addressing the root cause of your stress requires looking honestly at yourself and reconnecting with your feelings, instincts, and intuition. Sometimes this can be as simple as realizing you can’t keep being the person your job demands you be, and then finding new work. Other times, the process may be more complicated. Stress can be rooted in childhood experiences that made you feel unwanted or inadequate—feelings that many of us carry forward as adults. Without our realizing it, those feelings can unconsciously drive us into stressful situations. Ask yourself, does my life reflect who I truly am and what I want?
- Love yourself enough to make difficult changes, if you need to. If you realize that you’re not living in a way that’s true to who you are and what you want, make some changes. They can be small or large, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes your change may simply be asking for help with a situation that you can’t change. Reaching out to a psychologist isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of courage that you recognize a problem and value your own happiness enough to work on fixing it.
- Change how you think about stress. Recently I watched a provocative TED Talk given by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. She discussed research that shows how you perceive stress can change how it affects your body. If you view it negatively, it results in all of the damaging effects I mentioned earlier. But if you think of it as helpful—as “my body helping me rise to the challenge” (her words)—it actually has beneficial effects on the heart and the body, and it strengthens the social support networks that help us through trying times. I think this is an incredibly powerful example of how our intentions and attitude toward life help determine our health. The mind is much more powerful than we believe. Try to flip the script on stress and view it as giving you the strength to keep going—and then see if you naturally begin to feel more resilient. Watch Dr. McGonigal’s full TED Talk—it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time.
The Body Never Lies
I’ve treated enough patients over the years to confidently say that our thoughts and feelings are always revealed in our body. We can rationalize our attitudes and actions, but the body never lies. If you live a life filled with stress—and you can’t find a way to positively channel those emotions—those feelings will eventually show themselves in some way.
If you truly want to minimize the impact of stress on your own health, take the time to rebalance your mind, body, and spirit. You’ll be glad you did.
- Du J, et al. The personality and psychological stress predict major adverse cardiovascular events in patients with coronary heart disease after percutaneous coronary intervention for five years. Medicine (Baltimore). 2016 Apr;95(15):e3364.
- Jamieson JP, et al. Improving acute stress responses: the power of reappraisal. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2013;22(1):51–56.
- Johnson B and Johnson F. Stress and cardiac arrhythmias. Indian Pacing Electrophysiol J. 2014 Sep–Oct;14(5):230–232.
- Keller A et al. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychol. 2012 Sep;31(5):677–84.
- Sinatra ST. Heartbreak and Heart Disease. Keats Publishing, Inc., New Canaan, CT. 1996.
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