Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States. Chronic stress has long been associated as a contributor to heart disease. This association continues to be studied, but it may have as much to do with lifestyle behaviors we adopt as a response to stress in our daily lives. Some of the behaviors contribute to high blood pressure, higher cholesterol levels, obesity, effects of smoking and physical inactivity. Maladaptive strategies an individual might adopt may be intentional or subconscious. Too much alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, over eating “comfort” foods “because I deserve it” are all strategies that are commonly adopted and most are socially acceptable to manage stress.
Stressful situations lead to a sequence of events that create the human physical response. Hormonal changes designed by nature for protection, are initiated to prepare the body for fight, flight or freeze, depending on what the situation calls for. When the stressful event passes, another sequence of hormonal changes is created to reverse the condition that prepares the body for fight or flight, bringing the body back to a place of calm and relaxation. In chronic stress the response is constant and your body remains in a tense readiness for fight or flight which affects the health of the cardiovascular system as well as other body systems.
Learning to manage the normal stress in our everyday lives helps to bring the body back to that calm place, reducing the negative effects being in a “high alert” mode does to the body. If you are someone always on the ready for “when the other shoe will drop”, or balancing too many responsibilities to the point of exhaustion, you may need to step back and first become aware of how you are physically responding. The next step is becoming fully aware of what it is you are doing about it. Are your responses maladaptive? Or are they adaptive? Maladaptive strategies may help in the moment but can damage your body. Adaptive strategies bring the body to a calm place without potentially damaging it.
Adaptive strategies take into consideration the whole person, body mind and spirit. They are “techniques that prove effective in satisfactorily dealing with stress, based on the accomplishment of a peaceful resolution” (Seward 2016). Adaptive strategies include, a diet that nourishes our bodies rather than just feed them, exercise to help burn off the tensions and frustrations of the day, as well as promote a healthier cardiovascular system, attention to the spirit through prayer, mindfulness, yoga, art, music, experiencing the natural world, journaling, giving and accepting love and caring of others, fostering good relationships, and bringing humor into your everyday life. Effective adaptive strategies require intention, awareness and planning. Where do we fit strategies that have been demonstrated to be effective, into our day? In celebration of heart month perhaps take some time to tend to the health of your own heart by reflecting on how you are managing stress, what you are doing about it. Are your current strategies adaptive or maladaptive? Next be sure to schedule more of those adaptive strategies into your day on a regular basis.
For additional information on stress management, check out the following resources:
Stress and Heart Health—American Heart Association
Can Stress Lead to a Heart Attack—Mayo Health System