How do you usually react to stressful situations? What happens if your car breaks down? Or if you're late to work because of a traffic jam? Or maybe you're dealing with some family drama.
Do you have a short fuse? Or are you able to stay calm and manage your stress intelligently?
There is no universal response to stress; everyone reacts to it differently. Depending on how much stress you have in your life and how you handle it, you can experience several health problems, and that's why you need to know what to do about it.
Too much stress could potentially lead to high blood pressure (aka hypertension) as well as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.
The Effects of Stress on Your Heart
Stress can lead to the types of behaviors and factors that lead to high blood pressure: overeating, smoking, cholesterol intake, and physical inactivity. People might use those behaviors as coping mechanisms for dealing with chronic stress. Unfortunately, these activities can damage the lining of your blood vessels by increasing your blood pressure. More research needs to be done to determine how stress leads to heart disease (the number one cause of death for Americans).
Furthermore, your body may respond to stress with stomach pain, headache, or back pain. The emotion of stress itself will also make you feel worse - crankiness, forgetfulness, insomnia, and lack of self-control are common symptoms of stress.
Stress can also lead to a downward spiral. It begins as a chain of events: your body produces adrenaline, which is a hormone that temporarily increases your blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. The purpose of adrenaline is to allow you to deal with threatening situations (evolutionarily speaking) by preparing your body accordingly. This is what's commonly known as the "fight or flight" response.
If you experience this constant adrenaline rush from stress, your body will feel the effects for days or even weeks at a time. Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands. It's important for helping your body deal with stressful situations, as your brain triggers its release in response to many different kinds of stress. However, when cortisol levels are too high for too long, this hormone can hurt you more than it helps.
The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body's processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
That's why it's so important to learn healthy ways to cope with your life stressors.
Stress Management Tips
Researchers are currently studying the effects of stress management in preventing heart disease. If you can manage your stress levels effectively, you'll improve your overall health and likely your heart health too. Here are some ways that you can manage stress:
Adjust Your Behavior
Are you feeling stressed all the time? This phenomenon is known as chronic stress. Chronic stress can put a strain on your entire body, especially your heart. Chronic stress is comparable to an engine that is always revved up; eventually, it will destroy your body.
As we said earlier, using unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress can lead to an increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and heart attack. On the other hand, healthy habits like exercise, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep will help keep the stress at bay. However, if you still have trouble managing stress, then it's recommended you work on changing your reaction to stressors.
If you can practice these following three behaviors, you'll be able to mitigate the stressors in your life more effectively. Practicing these three behaviors might require you to change your thinking patterns and retrain your brain if necessary.
Practice Expressing Gratitude
There is plenty of research out there showing that people who express gratitude on a regular basis experience less stress in their lives.
Practicing gratitude means that you acknowledge that there are positive things happening in your life, which means that you don't have to dwell on the perceived bad things in your life.
Keeping a journal to write down the things you're grateful for is also a good idea. You don't have to write every day - just once a week is ok. This journal can include both the little things (the smile from the cashier in your favorite corner store) and the bigger things in your life (that you have a roof over your head protecting you from the elements outside). When writing down these entries, try to make them as detailed as possible, including why they make you feel grateful.
Writing thank-you-notes are also a good way to express gratitude. For example, when you write a letter of appreciation to someone for something they did for you, you'll feel more positive afterward. Over time, this can help to make your outlook on life more positive.
Almost everyone has overcome a great challenge in their life - perhaps it was a stressful situation like a health problem, monetary problem, or a loss in the family. When you face another big problem in your life, think back to the strength you showed before, and then try to summon that strength again.
For example, if you're worried about a health ailment, try to imagine the best outcome possible. If you're worried about gaining weight, instead focus on how you'll feel about yourself after two months of going to the gym. Also, try to think about how you'll feel more confident and energetic.
Now don't waste those happy feelings - put them to good use! Start setting goals to bring your vision into reality. If you stay proactive with your goals, you'll be able to stay optimistic more easily.
One way to counter stressors and the stress response is to adopt the "Relaxation Response." You can practice it with meditation or with repetitive prayer. Here are the steps:
- Select a Calming Focus. It could be your breath, a sound ("om"), a positive word (such as "love" or "yes!" or "relax").
- Practice repetitions of your Calming Focus (silently or otherwise) as you breathe in and out.
- As you repeat your Calming Focus, don't worry about how you're doing; just forget the world and relax. If you start to lose focus, take a deep breath, and simply start again.
If you practice the Relaxation Response for 10-20 minutes a day, you can significantly reduce the stress in your life.
Fill Your Life With Purpose
People with no purpose in their lives tend to feel more stressed than others. This is because having no sense of purpose can make you feel like you have no control over your life. This kind of stress can also affect your heart health.
Having a health-related goal can help you regain a sense of purpose in your life. For instance, if you want to go surfing with your girlfriend, you may need to get in shape and start exercising first; while this might seem like a small goal, it will go a long way towards combating stress by bringing focus and purpose back into your life.