Stress can be hard to avoid, but don’t worry if you can’t avoid stress completely—you don’t have to. According to the Mayo Clinic, stress is a normal physical and psychological reaction to both positive and negative situations. Stress itself isn’t necessarily unhealthy—but your reaction to it can be.
How Does Stress Affect Your Heart?
When stress becomes constant and chronic, it can cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure that may damage the artery walls, the American Heart Association (AHA) reports. Stress that’s left unchecked may contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
In particular, research has shown that those with “Type A” traits—such as often feeling rushed, irritated, impatient, or angry—have an increased likelihood of developing heart disease. Emotions like anger and hostility cause your body to release stress hormones into your blood. This causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure, which makes your heart work harder.
Managing Your Stress Levels
Although the exact link between heart disease and stress is unclear, it’s smart to take steps now to get your stress levels under control. It may be tempting to ask your doctor for medicine to manage stress, but lifestyle changes such as stress management techniques are a much better long-term strategy to lower your stress level.
One of the best ways to help you relax and manage stress is through deep breathing exercises, including meditation. It takes a little practice to make a habit of breathing exercises, but anyone can learn them. You can use them at home or in the office—or anywhere that you need some relief. Try these exercises, recommended by the AHA and Mayo Clinic, to help reduce stress:
The easiest form of relaxation exercise is simply to practice deep breathing. To make this practice a true stress reliever that calms the tension in your mind and body, it’s best to begin by doing this exercise somewhere quiet, where you are free from distractions like television. As your skills increase, you can try practicing this technique in different situations, whenever you feel stressed.
- Find a comfortable position, either seated in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and hands resting in your lap, or lying down.
- Take a deep breath in and then let it out.
- Continue inhaling and exhaling, focusing on breathing slowly and deeply.
- Begin by doing this for five minutes, and work your way up to 10 minutes or more.
As you become more comfortable with the rhythm of deep breathing, try to make your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. For best results, try to make deep breathing a daily habit by practicing for five to 10 minutes around the same time each day to relax.
Deep breathing is just one of many forms of meditation. Meditation is a type of mind-body complementary medicine which seeks to develop a tranquil mind and deep state of relaxation. The idea behind meditation is to eliminate the jumbled thoughts that may be causing you to feel stressed and instead to focus your attention so that you can proceed more calmly through your day. Heart disease and high blood pressure are among the conditions that research suggests meditation may help. Here are some techniques to consider:
This type of meditation involves using imagery or visualization in conjunction with deep breathing. For example, while you practice the deep breathing exercise above, picture yourself in a setting that feels peaceful to you, such as a sunny meadow or the beach.
You might also try associating other senses with these relaxing scenes by imagining what it smells or sounds like. As an alternative to using visualization on your own, you can be guided through this type of meditation by a teacher in a class or by a CD that leads you through the steps.
The idea behind mindfulness meditation is to focus on what you experience during meditation, such as being aware of your breath as you practice deep breathing. For example, as you inhale and exhale, try keeping your conscious awareness on the feelings and senses you experience as air passes into your nostrils and down through your lungs.
If your mind wanders away from this direct experience of the present moment, you can try bringing your focus gently back to your breathing. When that happens, do so calmly, without irritation or annoyance at yourself. Let your thoughts come and go without judgment, simply returning your focus to your breath.
Other types of mediation combine physical movement with breathing exercises, such as yoga and tai chi. Whatever form you choose, you’ll have the comfort of knowing that you’re managing your stress levels and perhaps even improving your heart health.