By Martha Funnell, MS, RN, CDE
You have probably seen it in a movie or on TV: someone gets very angry and suddenly has a heart attack. While it makes a great story, the real-life impact of emotional distress on your heart is usually not so sudden or dramatic. But stress can have a dramatic effect on your heart and blood vessels.
EFFECTS OF STRESS
First, the facts. When we are stressed, we release hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to help us deal with the situation. These hormones get us ready for “flight or fight.” You have probably heard stories about people who can do things like lift a car off a child when these hormones kick in. For most of us, stress comes from our everyday lives. We juggle demands, not cars, so over time, these hormones become harmful rather than helpful. They also raise blood glucose levels, cause cholesterol to be released into the blood and, over time, can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. This speeds up the development of fatty deposits in the bloodstream. This increases your risk for high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
PERSONALITY AND YOUR HEART
You may remember reading about types of personalities and how they relate to your risk for a heart attack. Type A personalities were thought to be at great risk because they are very driven and hard-working. However, further research did not back up this finding. Now there is a different idea. Based on new research, general distress is linked with coronary heart disease and high blood pressure. Distress is defined as the combination of a negative outlook with social inhibition. Signs of this so-called Type D personality include worry, irritability, gloom and a lack of self-confidence. The truly harmful emotions appear to be anxiety, hostility and hopelessness. No one has yet shown that decreasing your distress will help to prevent heart disease, but it may help to make your life, and the lives of those around you, easier.
LEARNING TO DE-STRESS
Although you cannot avoid all stress, even the most distressed among us can learn to de-stress. Learning to de-stress means being able to balance the negative and positive aspects of our lives. A lot of our distress is caused by negative experiences and feelings that make us anxious and hostile. Just as you need to clean out your closet now and then, you also need to clean out your life of things that are distressing. Sometimes it means saying no to certain people or situations. Other times it means deciding to let go of old hurts and negative feelings.
Distress is not usually caused by an event, but how we perceive and react to the situation. Although we cannot always prevent stress, we can reframe our view or perception. Try asking yourself “What is the worst thing that can happen if I am late because I am stuck in traffic?” Physical activity is another way to de-stress. Activity released endorphins are the “feel good hormones” that counteract the effects of stress hormones. Many people find taking a brisk walk to going to the gym after work helps them leave their stress behind.
Here are some more ideas for handling stress:
- Meditation: Many find this helpful in releasing some stress and achieving inner peace.
- Relaxation and deep breathing exercises: There is a variety of information available at your local library, video store or on the internet. It may take several tries before you find a technique that helps you feel relaxed, so keep it up.
- Stress management classes: Many community and senior centers offer classes in yoga and/or stress management. They help you not only learn to manage stress, but also how to de-stress as much of your life as you can.
- Expressing your feelings: Distress also comes from pent-up feelings that eat away at us. Find someone who is a good listener (rather than an advice giver), or write down your negative feelings. Listening to yourself talk about a situation or reading what you have written gives you a chance to reflect. Through reflection comes insight.