You know it’s heart month, and you know many of the situations that can cause your heart to be unhappy: high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, high triglycerides, smoking, lack of exercise. Doctors have been warning us about these for years.
But there’s another key factor you may have overlooked. Stress.
Yup, chronic stress can do a number on your heart. It does so through several avenues. Chronic stress can cause high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, chronic inflammation, and the formation of plaque in your arteries. But here’s the rub. You can be slim, fit, and have normal blood pressure, but still have plaque building up silently in your arteries. The first sign you have a problem may be a heart attack. It’s only with hindsight that chronic stress is uncovered as the root cause.
So if you think you have too much stress in your life, what can you do?
Regular Exercise – Better than any single pill, exercise has multiple benefits. Studies show regular aerobic exercise decreases tension, elevates and stabilizes mood, improves sleep and self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
Deep Breathing – This is one of the best ways to lower stress quickly. When you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain sends the message to your whole body.
Good Sleep – Studies show that adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night report higher stress levels than those who sleep at least eight hour a night. Stress/anxiety, however, can also negatively affect sleep. Follow the guidelines of Matthew Walker, setting aside eight hours of non-negotiable sleep opportunity on a consistent schedule. Sometimes relaxing herbs/amino acids/minerals also can help: L-theanine, magnesium, valerian, etc.
Forest Bathing – Studies show spending time in nature significantly lowers stress. This is especially true if you’re in a forest because trees emit relaxing compounds called terpenes.
Meditation – Studies show mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. Should you be interested in learning how to meditate, Huntsville has a great resource in the Alabama Institute for Mindfulness.
Yoga, Tai Chi or other calming exercise – These focus on slow, controlled breathing and gentle calming exercise poses. Studies show they lower stress and anxiety.
Work on changing your mind – Byron Katie’s exercises are a big help here. If you find yourself often irritated, check out Katie’s The Work to help you become more aware of stressful thoughts.