Reducing the impact of stress in the lives of my patients is a cornerstone of my Integrative Cardiology practice. When we encounter a stressful situation, hormones including epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and cortisol increase blood pressure, raise blood sugar levels and suppress the immune system. These responses are helpful in “fight-or-flight” instances but constant stimulation of stress hormones contribute to poor physical and emotional health, especially weight gain and blood sugar control.
The good news is that you can take some steps to reduce the impact of stress in your life – some are quite simple and drop you blood pressure quickly – and some require a bit more of a lifestyle change but can dramatically improve your health, wellness and vitality.
There are many potential origins of stress. Some of these may resonate with you, and some may surprise you as sources of stress.
Sensory – Pain, bright light, loud noise
Life events – Birth, death, marriage, divorce, graduation
Responsibilities – Lack of money, unemployment
Work and/or study – Exams, deadlines, group projects
Personal relationships – Communication problems, conflict, deception,
Lifestyle – Heavy drinking, poor diet, insufficient sleep or exercise
Environmental – Lack of control over circumstances, such as food, housing, health, freedom or mobility
Social – Struggles with specific individuals or groups, social defeat
Developmental – Prenatal exposure to toxins or other stressors, poor attachment histories, abuse, the aging process
When you cannot remove yourself from the stress-inducing environment or situation, these techniques and suggestions can reduce its impact on your health.
Mindfulness – Bring awareness to each moment as it comes. Focus not on what happened in the past, nor what will happen in the future, but that which is in the present. This technique quiets the mind, reduces stress hormones and allows the body to relax. The way we choose to respond to a situation is based on past experiences. If we have a pattern of negative response to a situation or person based on the past, being mindful that each moment is new can help reduce stress.
Sleep – Getting enough sleep each night in a peaceful, clean environment. Use white noise or ear plugs, adopt relaxing bedtime rituals, avoid alcohol and computer use 3 hours before bed. Aim for 8 hours!
Talk therapy – Either formal counseling or talking to your support network (friends, family).
Exercise – Increases flow of blood to the brain, releases molecules in the body that may have a relaxing, anti-anxiety effect, increases physical fitness and self-image. Walk, dance, swim, Wii , etc.
Cultivation of a spiritual practice – make time for prayer, reflection, meditation.
Breathing Techniques – Deep breathing triggers the nervous system to shift into relaxation mode and quiets the fight-or-flight response. One simple techniques is to breathe in deeply and slowly to a count up to 5, whatever you can do, then slowly release it through your mouth for a longer count. Repeat this a few times. See my post on several very effective techniques, “Breathing For Stress Reduction.”
Limiting exposure to negativity – For example “a news/media fast,” answering calls from negative people only when you are ready for them, etc.
Time in nature – Spend time near the water, in the woods or quiet place for any amount of time.
Listening to recordings – Those that facilitate relaxation or guided meditation/visualization.
Intentional eating – Selecting healthy foods that feed your body and spirit in a balanced way.
Self-care – Massage, acupuncture, reflexology, spa treatments are healthy ways to create space for self-care.
Laughter – laugh for at least 60 seconds/day, even if things aren’t that funny. Smile more.
Adopt a Pet – And, here’s one of my favorites for those with the ability to do so. Adopt a loving pet from a shelter. Extensive research has shown that the nurturing, human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship that positively influences the health and well-being of both people and animals. As a cardiologist, I’ve seen how pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, has reduced cardiovascular disease risk and shown higher survival rates following heart attacks. I’ve actually written prescriptions for patients to “get a dog.” Benefits of companionship often include a reduction in blood pressure from mental stress, while improving mental outlook, decreasing anxiety and pain, and motivating people to get more exercise in nature – a triple play against the impact of stress.
Dr. Mimi G