We all know a healthy heart stems from plenty of exercise and a healthy diet, but did you know that reducing your stress levels could hugely benefit your long-term heart health, too? So much so, in fact, that cardiologists are recommending it as a method for reducing the risk of heart attacks for patients with mild to moderate coronary heart disease.
Healthspan Medical Director Dr Sarah Brewer says, ‘Some stress is good for us as it allows us to adapt to meet life’s challenges, but stress which takes us beyond our comfort zone is bad for the heart. Stress hormones constrict blood vessels and can cause spasm of coronary arteries. Prolonged stress leads to high levels of cortisol which can increase blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and makes the blood stickier which are all factors for heart disease’.
‘Stress can also lead to coping behaviours such as smoking or drinking too much alcohol which can also adverse effects on the heart and circulation. Researchers from University College London have found that people in demanding jobs, who do not have the freedom to make decisions, are 23% more likely to have a heart attack than those who did not report job strain’.
Stress – whether you’re stuck in traffic, late for an appointment or have too much on your plate at work – can manifest itself in a surprising number of day-to-day situations. “Continual underlying stress caused my caring for elderly parents, juggling work and home life or struggling to make ends meet with the rising cost of living can also lead to chronic stress” says Dr Meg Arroll, a psychologist for Healthspan. It is this long-term stress that is damaging to health so learning to control how you deal with life’s daily stresses will help you to improve your heart health.
These five steps towards reducing your stress levels will help you on your way:
A recent study on meditation and its link to heart disease found completing fifteen minutes of meditating a day reduced the risk of heart disease and stroke by 48%. All you have to do is sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and repeat a sound in your head – otherwise known as a mantra – for the whole fifteen minutes and voila, you’ll feel fully relaxed afterwards.
Take a deep breath
If you’re looking for a short-term fix for stress breathing is a good place to start. It sounds simple but taking the time to breathe deeply is incredibly beneficial for keeping your heart rate down and stress levels low. To make sure you’re breathing deeply place one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Your belly should rise on the inhale and dip on the exhale. If your chest is moving up and down take a moment and concentrate on drawing the air down towards your abdomen. Breathing deeply ultimately helps to lower the production of the stress hormone cortisol and therefore keep you calm.
In the long-term mindfulness – an ability to focus on the moment you are in – is a great way to reduce stress levels. Rather than dealing with the symptoms of stress mindfulness prevents us from getting unnecessarily stressed in the first place. Of course, living an entirely stress-free lifestyle is impossible considering the fast-paced world we live in today, but gaining a sense of perspective – which is part of learning how to be mindful – and therefore preventing unnecessary agitation will reduce the negative impact of stress on your health and wellbeing in the long run.
Share a problem
The old adage ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ holds weight in relations to stress and heart health – being able to talk to others and feel connected helps to protect us from heart problems. Social support from friends, family and our communities act as an important buffer to stress. In fact, one study has shown that social isolation is as bad for our hearts as smoking. Loneliness increases our risk of developing heart disease so if you do tend to spend a lot of time on your own, consider joining local groups, popping round to see neighbours. If you don’t feel you have the time to see others in person, make a phone call to a friend or the Samaritans (it’s free anytime, from any phone on 116 123).
Write it down
Dr Meg Arroll also suggests that simply jotting down our thoughts and feelings on a regular basis can improve both our mental and physical health. “People who express their feelings through writing them down visit their doctor’s less regularly for stress-related problems and have lower blood pressure. You can write about any experiences you like – whether these are from your past or what’s happened during the day. Try doing this for around 10-15 minutes a day, 3-5 days a week.”Last modified: June 10, 2021