For your heart’s sake, make it a priority to keep your stress in check.
“Stress is a known factor for poor cardiac health,��� says cardiologist Anuj Shah, MD, founder of Apex Heart and Vascular Care in Passaic, NJ.
High levels of stress can lead to high blood pressure, hypertension, some heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), and artery damage. When you’re under a lot of stress, you’re also more likely to do things that raise your risk of heart disease and stroke, such as smoking, drinking too much, overeating, drug use, and not being active.
By taking steps to manage stress, you may lower your risk of heart problems.
Keep the Big Picture in Mind
As annoying or heavy as the problems you’re dealing with right now might seem, stress comes and goes. It can shape-shift, taking different forms and cropping up in different situations tomorrow than what’s on your mind today.
But you have the power to decide how you handle it. There are simple things you can do that help. “Focusing on your physical, emotional, and psychological well-being helps keep it under control,” Shah says.
Start with these stress-busting building blocks.
- Eat a good-for-you diet. It will give you the nutrients you need to help stay well. You probably know the basics: more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein, and less saturated fat and added sugar.
- Exercise on most days. When you’re under pressure, it’s easy to blow this off. But even a little activity helps.
- Make good sleep a priority. Most people need 7-8 hours.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Make your daily schedule more manageable. This will mean prioritizing what’s most important and letting go of trying to get everything done.
- Take time every day for relaxation. Even a few minutes count. For instance, you could meditate, listen to music, get outside, or spend time with people who make you feel good.
- Talk about your stress with someone you trust: a loved one, friend, or therapist.
Identify Your Triggers
Tune into what gives you stress so you can manage it better. Is it work? Relationships? Lack of time?
You may be able to avoid certain things. But some sources of stress are beyond your control. You’ll need strategies to deal with those. Try a class, read books on stress management, and keep in mind that a professional therapist may help.
Take Control of Your Outlook
You don’t want to turn a blind eye to your stress or be in denial about it. Instead, you want to focus on taking the actions that are within your control to either change the situation or build your resilience in the face of stress you can’t avoid.
- Practice positive self-talk. Remind yourself of your strengths and resources.
- Praise yourself for what you do well. Even if it doesn’t solve the situation, it still counts.
- Accept what you can’t control. You’re not saying it’s OK, just that it is what it is.
- Avoid what-ifs. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Plan only as far as it makes sense to right now.
- When you feel overwhelmed, take a break. You might not be able to do this in a crisis. But prioritize it as soon as possible.
Do Relaxation Exercises
Do relaxation exercises regularly. Try a few, then use what works best for you.
Deep breathing. Stress makes your muscles tense up and your breathing shallow. Deep breathing helps with both. “Inhale, exhale, and pause,” says New York City strength and conditioning coach Sean Light, a licensed massage therapist. “The longer the pause, the better the results.”
- Sit down or lie down in a quiet place.
- Close your mouth.
- Breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose for a count of three.
- Breathe out deeply and slowly through your nose for a count of three.
- Repeat until you feel yourself relax.
Meditation. Meditation can help you enter a deep state of relaxation, offer new perspective, and keep stress at bay.
There are many types of meditation, like guided meditation, mantra meditation, and mindfulness meditation. You can also try prayer; reading or reflecting on poetry, text, or music; or repeating a mantra.
To meditate at home:
- Breathe deeply.
- Focus on your breathing or a word.
- Your mind will wander. That’s OK. Gently redirect your attention to the point of focus that you chose.
Guided imagery or visualization. You’ll focus on a relaxing image to help stress melt away.
- Sit or lie down in a quiet place.
- Close your eyes.
- Start with deep breathing.
- Create a detailed image in your mind of something that feels good. For example, picture a favorite vacation spot.
- Focus on the details. Use your senses, like smell, sight, and touch, to make your image more vivid.
- Whenever you feel stress, bring the image to your mind.
Biofeedback. This is a technique you do with a trained psychologist. A professional uses monitors to measure your muscle tension and heart rate. Then she teaches you how to control your body, like relaxing your muscles and your breathing, based on the feedback.
Your Stress Toolkit
Round out your toolkit with a variety of techniques. Some may work better for you than others. Keep trying until you find the right mix.
- Spend time with family or friends.
- Surround yourself with positive people.
- Write in a journal.
- Focus on the present instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
- Get something simple done. It’s rewarding. Procrastination makes things worse.
- Get a massage.
- Go for a walk.
- Play music that makes you happy.
- Go tech-free for an hour.
- Keep a gratitude notebook.
- If you have a spiritual practice, tap into it.
- Get involved in your community.
- See a professional therapist to manage ongoing stress.
Regular stress management is good for your heart health. Remember to keep up with it, says Shah. Daily practice prepares you for a sudden spike in stress. It’s like developing a muscle that’s ready when you need it.
“Everyone faces unexpected stress at one point or another,” Shah says. “When a crisis happens, be kind and compassionate with yourself. Give yourself permission and time to deal with it.”