A Closer Look at Stress and Your Heart

January 09, 2018
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NORTH CONWAY, NH – Our body sends us signals when something is not quite right. Do we listen and take notice? During this reflective time of year, perhaps we can make it a goal in the New Year to try to pay more attention to these signals. It is as simple as resting more often, pausing during a busy day so we can hear what our body is trying to say.

The body sends us signals when we are under stress in physical, cognitive, emotional or behavioral ways. Some commons physical signs are dizziness, aches and pains, grinding teeth, headaches, indigestion, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, racing heartbeat, fatigue and weight loss or gain. Some cognitive signs are constant worry, difficulty making decisions, hard to concentrate, poor memory and loss of humor. Emotional signs include anger, crying, anxiety, depression, mood swings, irritability, loneliness and negative thinking. Behavioral signs include bossiness, compulsive eating, critical attitude of others, explosive actions, increase use of alcohol and withdrawal from social situations.

If you start to notice these signs more often in yourself or others have noticed them in you, pay closer attention. Ask yourself “Why is this happening and where is this coming from?” Look for patterns. Listening to these signs and reducing their effect on your body can actually help keep our hearts and bodies healthier.

Ignoring them can lead to more complicated health issues. This stress on the body begins to accumulate and can lead to emotional, psychological and physical issues including heart disease, high blood pressure, chest pains and irregular heartbeats. In light of new research in the field of cardiology, this unmanaged stress may be considered a significant risk factor to the development of heart disease. Chronic stress exposes our body to sustained elevated levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which can damage the heart over time. Recent studies have linked stress to an overproduction of white blood cells that can lead to plaque formation in the arteries increasing risk of heart disease.

In 2017, Dr. Ahmed Tawakol from Harvard Medical School identified a mechanism that links emotional stress, artery inflammation and risk of heart attack. Heightened activity in a small area of the brain called the amygdala better known as “ the brain's fear center” where intense emotions like fear, stress and anxiety are processed, was linked to increased bone marrow activity, inflammation of the arteries and higher risk of cardiovascular events. This new evidence prompted Dr. Tawakol to speak to his patients about their stress levels and how they were managing them. Evidence-based research is now suggesting that decreasing the activity in the amygdala using relaxation techniques can help to lower your risk of heart disease. One recent study focused on patients enrolled in a cardiac rehabilitation program for exercise training which included an emphasis on stress reduction education including evaluation of coping skills, relaxation techniques and 1:1 counseling. Patients who participated in this program had fewer cardiac events during a 3 year post rehab period than patients who elected not to participate.

Stress reduction techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, regular exercise, a healthy balanced diet and prayer can also help. In 2013, researchers in Europe discovered that listening to music that you love while exercising was a winning combination in reducing the risk of heart disease. Music triggered biological changes in the lining of the blood vessels that lowered risk of cardiovascular events. Other studies in the field of Psychology have found that acts of forgiveness lowers risk of heart disease, improves cholesterol levels and sleep, reduces pain, BP, anxiety, depression and overall stress on the body.

According to the Harvard affiliated Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine at Mass General Hospital in Boston, MA, education on self-care practices can help buffer daily stress and foster resilience and increase the ability to cope with stress in a more positive way. The program emphasizes the importance of healthy and enjoyable eating, restorative sleep, physical activity and focuses on techniques that help you relax. The goal is to invoke a calming effect on your body to reverse the negative stress that you feel.

Try this simple exercise at home to invoke a calming effect to your body.

This technique can be done in 2 simple steps. First choose a calming focus like your favorite peaceful scene, your breath or a word like “peace’ or a phrase like “breath in calm, exhale stress”. Repeat this as you inhale and exhale quietly. Second, let go and relax. Don’t worry about what you are doing. If your mind wanders, bring it gently back to your focus. Practice this 10 min. a day to help reduce the effect stress has on your body.

Patients can also access more stress management education and techniques you can use at home from Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine at www.massgeneral.org/bhi

Listening more closely to your heart and body and trusting that inner voice when something isn’t quite right and making a plan to change the effect of a negative stress to your body can keep you healthier in this new year!

Memorial Hospital offers several heart healthy programs at its Heart, Health & Wellness Center, inc. the Fresh Start Wellness Program. This program is designated to help any individual who wants to improve stamina, strength, and flexibility. Participants learn how to enhance their sense of well-being through health education. For more information call 603-356-0616 or visit them online at www.memorialhospitalnh.org.

About Memorial Hospital
Memorial Hospital is a not-for-profit 25-bed Critical Access Hospital located in North Conway, NH, and is a member of the MaineHealth family. Its hospital services include a 24-hour emergency department, surgery center, clinical laboratory, heart health & wellness programs, family birthing center, sleep center, oncology, chemotherapy and infusion services and the Miranda Center for Diabetes. Physician practices include primary care and family medicine, women's health, orthopedics and sports medicine. The Merriman House, a 45-bed nursing home specializing in Alzheimer's and other memory disorders, is also located on the hospital campus. Together, our staff and providers are committed to meeting the health needs of the Mt. Washington Valley and surrounding communities by collaborating with community partners in the delivery of accessible, comprehensive, compassionate, and quality health care.