When it comes to health and well-being, most people tend to focus on diet and exercise. Recently, though, I’ve been getting a lot more questions about stress. That’s a good thing. Chronic stress can undermine all our good intentions and healthy habits. Stress can be overwhelming because it plays with our minds and our bodies. It convinces us it’s fine to take another drag of that cigarette or that we can have another glass of wine or that we deserve that doughnut because of all we’ve been through. A stressful state makes true well-being nearly impossible and prevents us from thinking straight.
Chronic stress also takes a physical toll. Prolonged stress wreaks havoc by constantly pumping stress hormones throughout the body. This increases your blood pressure and heart rate and can trigger an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response can lead to damage to the lining of the arteries, which then leads to plaque formation, artery blockage and eventually heart attacks.
Most people are under some amount of daily stress. Small unforeseen events have the potential to affect our schedules or plans and can hang over us. It isn’t that you can avoid it. Instead, it is how you deal with it that is most important. Managing stress is part of a heart-healthy life and finding your best technique to deal with it in a healthy way makes all the difference.
I frequently appear on The Dr. Oz Show to tackle stress head on. Recently, a brave woman who joined me on the show was going through divorce, custody issues, financial issues and health issues. In other words: massive, chronic stress. It affected her health, her ability to care for herself and her feelings about being in charge of her own life.
So what can we do about stress? As I mentioned before, there are many stressful aspects of life that you can’t just ignore, but some basic strategies to deal with stress and keep a calm mind even when you are in a chaotic environment can go a long way.
Know your stress. Knowing the stressors on your plate is always the first step. Many people I see are stressed out but don’t know why. Think about what areas of life stress you out. Is it money? A relationship? Your job? Your health? Pin down the things that make you see red when you have to face them. Some people find that journaling helps organize thoughts and see patterns in how we respond to life events. Whether you write them down or just spend some quiet time thinking about what stresses you out, you need to know your hot buttons to be able to manage them.
Assess the control factor. The next important thing to do is divide up your stressors into two columns: those you can control and those you can’t. Take those things you have no power over off the table. These things might include a stressful job you can’t quit right now or the personality of a family member. Let them go as stressors and see them as facts. Getting stuck on something you can’t do anything about isn’t worth your energy.
The other column can be a source of empowerment. When you look at this column, you see the things you can change. Start a confidential job search, get marriage counseling, taper off a stressful relationship or find new ways to make extra money in your spare time. Taking action can be a huge stress relief because it helps restore a feeling of control over your life.
Breathe. Inhaling and exhaling in a slow and methodical way can change the physiology of your heart and arteries while decreasing your stress levels. Try breathing in for four, hold for four, and out for six. This kind of breathing slows down the heart, dilates the arteries causing your blood pressure to drop and calms the nervous system. You can do these breathing exercises daily and pull it out when you are triggered to stop that stress response in its tracks.
Meditate. Transcendental meditation (TM) is an effective way of moving the nervous system from overstimulated to calm. Incorporating 20 minutes twice a day into your life can help reduce cholesterol, blood pressure and decrease the incidence of heart disease and stroke. Its benefits extend well beyond the 20 minutes of time dedicated to the practice. Most areas have classes on how to do TM and other, similar meditation techniques.
Try yoga or exercise. Exercise is a proven stress-reliever, antidepressant and overall tonic for the body. It’s the most powerful medication we have available for health maintenance and healing. Exercise retrains the body to respond to stress more productively. Find the type that you like, be it walking, running, exercise classes, biking or swimming. While it’s important to get your heart rate up, you should also mix in calming and relaxing exercises. Yoga, Pilates or leisurely walking are all great choices.
Stress is inevitable. What’s important is learning to manage it. And let’s face it: If we lived in a bubble of perfection, it would stress us out that we couldn’t get out. It’s all about perspective. Embrace your stress for its performance-enhancing qualities when you need them, then learn to let the stress go. Even if you can’t change the source, you can change your response to it.