ScottCare Cardiac Resources

Beat the Drawbacks of Long-Term Stress

Holiday stress. It is as cliché as it is real, and it happens because we are in full sensory overload this time of year. Between the bright lights, constant carols, endless to-dos, additional spending and extra eating, the body’s Fight, Flight or Freeze – otherwise known as our stress response – is triggered frequently.

The human body is designed to handle these stressors, as they help our mind and body adapt, grow, stay motivated and dodge danger. “We’re wired to respond to stress and remove it, sometimes even automatically,” says Rajita Sinha, PhD, Director of Yale Medicine’s Interdisciplinary Stress Center. “But life has become more complex.”

The complexity to which Sinha refers creates the sensory overload. There is a limit to the amount of stressors our bodies can handle well, and when we reach that limit the advantages of stress become disadvantages and take a hard toll. The harm can affect all the body’s systems, including:

  • Musculoskeletal: Muscles tense up under stress, reaching a state of guardedness. When the stress is released, the muscles relax. But should the stress last too long, muscle tension can cause migraines, chronic tension and even disrupt the body’s ability to recover from injury.
  • Respiratory: Stress can inhibit respiratory functions causing shortness of breath, rapid breathing and even asthma attacks in extreme situations.
  • Cardiovascular: You know the feeling of elevated blood pressure or an increased heart rate in a moment of panic? That’s your cardiovascular response; and like anything, too much of it can cause damage to the heart.
  • Endocrine: In stressful and challenging situations, the brain initiates the production of steroid hormones, including cortisol. Too much cortisol over time can impair the immune system, which has been linked to various physical and mental health conditions.
  • Gastrointestinal: The gut’s millions of neurons are in regular communication with the brain, which is why we get a butterfly effect in the belly. Stress can change their conversation, which can cause pain, bloating and other discomfort.

Chronic stress, the consistent feeling of being overwhelmed and pressured, will cause the aforementioned long-term damages, particularly to the cardiovascular system, potentially resulting in high blood pressure, stroke, susceptibility to cancer and heart disease. While some of these events are reversible, others are not. Preventing any and all of this is why you want to properly manage stress.

Many effective tactics are available to manage stress. Try a few of these and figure out which works best for you.

  1. Box Breathing. Navy Seals employ this regularly as this practice can help regulate blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate – all autonomous functions stress affects. Box breathing is simply inhaling to a four-count, holding at the top of the inhale for a four-count, exhaling for a four-count and holding at the bottom of the exhale for a four-count. Holding your breath increases C02 levels, which lowers your heart rate and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system.)
  2. Exercise. Whatever movement you choose, your body will benefit and reduce stress. We all know the measurable effects: improved cardiovascular health, a trimmed down waistline and toned muscles. But physiologically, exercise boosts the production of endorphins (commonly known as the runner’s high),reduces cortisol production and gives your brain a focal point (distracting it from the stress).
  3. Change Your Diet. A wholesome, well-balanced diet is a gamechanger to your body’s reaction to stress. Added sugars (think sweets and treats) and refined carbs (think white bread and mass-produced pasta) create rapid spikes (and therefore equally fast plummets) in blood sugar. Caffeine can put your body’s natural stress response in overdrive. Fried foods (or any grub high in trans fats) create more work for your body in the breakdown process and cause inflammation. Try removing one of these items at a time for an extended period and take note of the improved mood and reaction. When you remove one item, replace it with something else. For example, drop the second cup of coffee for a cup of non-caffeinated tea. Or, swap out your after-lunch cookie with an apple. It may seem hard at first, but making one change at a time eases the transition and gives you time to adjust and feel the difference your efforts are making.
  4. Pay attention to how your body feels in stressful situations. Do you sweat? Do you feel sick to your stomach? Does your heart feel like it’s going to pump out of your chest? As you notice these feelings, stop what you’re doing, adjust it and reset the trajectory so that you don’t head down the path to stress.

Heeding one or more of these practices can result in a successful long-term stress management effort. Long term benefits include:

  • Better sleep
  • Improved eating choices
  • Reduced muscle tension
  • Improved, happier relationships

Ultimately, your physical and mental health are in a better place and therefore so is your heart.

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