Often the month of February can be associated with St Valentine, and with this may come pressure to celebrate our love with heart shaped chocolates, drinks and meals out. However, some people might find Valentine’s Day quite stressful, as they might feel pressurised to spend money they don’t have, or feel lonely if they are single. No matter what our relationship status, we all have a heart. This remarkable organ works tirelessly day in and day out, to keep us alive. Stress seems to have become a normal part of life. Experiencing stress can affect our heart physically, and it can also affect our heart centre emotionally. So, this month we focus on our actual heart to consider how stress and heart health are related. Read on for tips on how can we truly love our own heart by taking action to support our heart health.
What is stress?
Most people experience some form of stress every day. But what is stress? Stress is considered the body’s way of reacting to changes which require an adjustment or response. Stress can come from many different sources, for example from your environment, your body, and your thoughts. It can also be thought of as a lack of connection to your heart space, specifically disconnection with what you love to do.
- Is stress always bad?
Unfortunately, stress has often been given a bad name and many people have an aversion to stress in any shape or form. However, there are sometimes hidden benefits to stress. For example, if we were worried about a job interview a bit of stress might prompt us to take action to prepare for it more thoroughly. This might involve organising a practice interview to give us some more confidence, or talking through the job with a colleague. Stress before a big race, or sporting event could give us that extra push of energy to get us off to a great start. Stress can also motivate us to make changes, to be healthier or to learn new skills.
Although this short-term stress can be of benefit, this happening too often, or experiencing stress for a long period of time (known as chronic stress) can have a detrimental effect on our health. We will cover more about this later.
- Stress levels can change over our lifetime
Stress can change as our life situation changes. For example, as some people get older they may start to worry about health or finances. For others, they might start to worry about their children or societal issues, as they have become confident in their financial situation. In addition, the body’s ability to deal with both environmental and mental stresses can change as we get older. However, no matter what your current life situation is, the good news is that there are plenty of simple things we can do to reduce or manage our stress.
Stress and heart health – what’s the relationship?
There has been an increasing amount of scientific research into the effect of stress on our health and on heart health in particular. In the early 1990s, researchers investigated the association between job stress and cardiovascular disease. They found there was an association, however more research is needed into the exact ways in which this works. What has been clearly established is that stress has a big effect on behaviours that increase heart disease risk. For example, when people are stressed, they may overeat or choose food items that are less healthy, get less sleep, exercise less, drink more alcohol or take other intoxicants such as nicotine (smoking). All these behaviours can negatively affect our heart health.
- Physical effects of stress and heart health
When our bodies are stressed several physical changes take place. Hormones are released that temporarily cause your breathing and heart rate to speed up, making your heart work harder to be able to send more blood through your veins to your muscles. This helps the body to get ready for action, or to run away from the source of the stress, commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Blood pressure can rise. One of the hormones released in response to stress is called cortisol. Cortisol has many effects on the body, and is necessary for normal functioning, however excess levels of cortisol over a period of time can create problems. One of the effects is to increase appetite and may ramp up motivation, including the motivation to eat. When the stressful incident is over cortisol levels should fall, and the body return to balance. However, some people find themselves living in a state of chronic stress and then the hormone levels do not return to normal. (If you are interested in reading more about cortisol then read our earlier article: how to reduce cortisol and stress.)
You might also notice that when you feel stressed, your breathing can become shallow, as well as more rapid. Some people physically start to tighten their muscles, as they tense, holding the body rigid. For example, some people feel very tight in the shoulders or get tummy aches due to tense muscles. Headaches or migraines can occur, or teeth grinding. If you practice meditation regularly, becoming aware of your body sensations can help to recognise when you are feeling stressed, to take remedial action.
Chronic stress can have a long-term detrimental impact on our health, including issues such as weight gain, sleep problems, digestive problems, and heart disease.
- Emotional effects of stress and hearth health
There are many different ways stress can affect our emotions and our heart centre. Long-term stress can affect the part of the brain which controls memories and learning. In addition, some links have been made between long term stress and the risk of developing depression and anxiety. However, the exact ways in which stress affects our emotional health are not yet known. It has been reported that stress can contribute to overreacting, forgetfulness, and the feeling of being out of control. Sometimes when we are stressed we find it harder to listen or communicate, because we might feel angry or pressured. This can have an impact on our relationships with others.
These emotional effects of stress can again lead to certain behaviours, such as drinking alcohol or emotional eating, which may put additional stress on the heart and arteries.
What can you do to help counter stress?
There are plenty of simple daily actions we can take to help reduce the effects of stress in our lives:
- Speak to a friend
A supportive friend can be a great ally when you are feeling stressed. Try to get in touch to arrange a time for a chat when it is convenient for both of you. Recently a friend of mine and I were both going through stressful situations, we arranged a good amount of time to chat and by the end of it we both felt clearer having had the support of each other.
- Do some exercise, a workout or swim.
Exercise, yoga, a workout or swim can be a great counter to stress. In this month’s sister article by Amanda she explores Yoga for a healthy heart [Link to Amanda article on heart health]. This article looks at how the heart works and why regular exercise, like a yoga practice, can be such a great way of busting stress.
- Make a list of what makes you happy and do something from that list
When we are stressed and overwhelmed, we might feel like we have no time for ourselves which can increase these feelings. However, doing things that we enjoy can be a great way of countering the stress. So, pick up a pen and paper now, and make a list of ten things that you enjoy. Choose a variety of things. Some of these things could be simple things like taking a walk in the park, going to see a favourite relative or old friend, re-reading a favourite or inspiring book, getting a massage, or going to the cinema. Then do just one thing from this list this week and see if you can do another next week. No matter how busy you are we all have the same number of hours in a day. Sometimes it can just be a matter of prioritising yourself.
- Leave or change the situation
One thing to do if we find ourselves in a stressful situation is to walk away or avoid the situation in the first place. For example, many people find Christmas a stressful time. In 2019 the retreat opened for the first time at Christmas. We had a wide range of guests who for various reasons found the usual Christmas period stressful, so had chosen to change their situation – all of them found it such a peaceful Christmas. Sometimes, it can be hard to walk away from a stressful argument, or situation. However, we can learn techniques and strategies, such as practicing saying calmly ‘I am finding this situation quite stressful, I’m going to take some time, and I’ll come back to you when we both feel calmer and clearer’.
- Try deep breathing and mindfulness of breath
There are many wonderful simple breathing exercises that can help us relax. For two practical mindfulness based breathing exercises read our article: increasing contentment and concentration through mindfulness of breathing.
- Eat healthily
Next time you feel stressed, notice if you start to reach for specific “comfort” foods, or start to over-eat. Of course, a little bit of what you like could help you de-stress, however certain foods will put more pressure and strain on your heart. To read more about this see Lisa’s article on foods to lower cholesterol and look after your heart.
- Yoga or Yoga Nidra
As we have seen in Amanda’s article (see link above) yoga can be a fantastic way to counteract stress. Yoga Nidra, which is a guided relaxation practice, is another fantastic tool to boost relaxation. I personally use Yoga Nidra multiple times a week to help me feel calm, grounded and relaxed. For more about Yoga Nidra see our earlier article on Yoga Nidra for Inner Peace, Relaxation and Rejuvenation.
- Reduce stress where possible
Consider whether you can adopt longer-term strategies for reducing stress, such as taking better care of our health to reduce the risk of illness. Or making decisions that put less financial pressure on us. For example, in my family we have a Secret Santa where we only have one gift each, but it is something we really want. This takes away the stress of feeling we need to buy multiple presents. If you find driving stressful, you might choose to take public transport or go by bicycle, if possible. Avoid having deep conversations close to bedtime, to ensure you get a good night’s sleep.
- Be aware that stress and heart health might run in the family
Behaviours can run in families, as we learn from the environment in which we grow up in. If one (or both) of your parents experienced lots of stressful situations and found it challenging to manage, they might have resorted to shouting, drinking or other behaviours to manage their feelings. But people react differently to the same situation, so how we learn to respond to situations in one family might be different to another. Also, if you or your family have higher levels of stress or anxiety, this could impact you or other people around you. You could first try to use some of the techniques above. But if you feel that you still do not have the skills to deal with stressful situations, or that your stress is getting out of hand, consider reaching out to a doctor, therapist or coach who may be able to help you. There are also lots of other great simple techniques to help cope with stress, some of which we share here at La Crisalida Retreats.
For more tips you might like to read these articles:
- How to manage stress and feel lighter
- Seven key energy drains and how to stop them
- What are the top ten activities for mental health
Come on a relax and rejuvenate retreat
I hope you have found this month’s article on stress and heart health useful. Of course, we are here 365 days a year, providing a haven at one of our Relax and Rejuvenate Retreats where you will have time some out from your life, and get the chance to learn some techniques to develop healthy ways of countering stress.
What are your personal tips are for countering stress? It would be great to hear about these and share them with other readers. Let us know
About the author
- Tania is one of our programme team, who loves teaching yoga, mindfulness and other programme activities.