What Does Stress Do to Your Heart?

We all have stress. Some of us suffer from it. Others thrive in it. It motivates us. It worries us. It causes fear. It causes anxiety. It results in wasted time dwelling on an outcome that may be out of our control. So let’s understand it better. Let’s become friends with stress, so we can better recognize it, channel it, even control it, rather than being controlled by it.

There are at least three different type of stress - physical stress, mental and emotional stress. We will not address spiritual stress, but certainly one can have ideological conflicts that trigger a spiritual stress. Other authors categorize stress based on time - acute, subacute, and chronic. These time descriptors can be applied to the three types of stress I describe below.

  • Physical stress is tangible – something you can touch and objectively identify. Physical stress exerts a physical force on you. Clothing that doesn’t fit because you have gained weight is a physical stress. Physical stress can take the form of an injury – crack in a rib or a wrist bone. Menopause, acute injury, jet lag, infection, seasonal changes are all examples of physical stress.

  • Mental stress is more difficult to see in others. Depression, anxiety, frustration, irritability and phobias are example of mental stress. These types of stress are mental, but can have physical effects on a person (sweaty palms, elevated blood pressure, faster heart rate, rapid breathing, for example). All kinds of stress can lead to anxiety which may cause muscles tension, headaches, insomnia, loss of appetite, clinical depression even.

  • Emotional stress are the most challenging to witness because they can be hidden by controlling one’s expressions. Sadness, fear, excitement, anger, grief, guilt and shame are manifestations of emotional stress.

So far, it appears that stress is always a bad thing. This is not the case. There are good stresses that still trigger anxiety but are positive experiences. A new child, a new marriage, a promotion at work, an upcoming vacation can all cause stress even though they are good things. Stress is any occurrence that represents a deviation from the status quo, which the body and the mind must then adapt to.

What is your body’s response to stress? The human body produces stress hormones as a usual part of normal function. We refer to the status quo as “homeostasis” and in a typical day, there are surges and fluctuations of stress hormones measurable in the bloodstream. In the morning, the human body increases the release of cortisol, as a “rise-and-shine” signal to the body. Those who work second or third shift know all too well the difficulty of falling asleep when the body has not adapted to the work schedule. Increased cortisol can result in high blood sugar, increased abdominal fat deposits, reduced thyroid function, impaired cognitive performance, disrupted sleep, and impaired immune function.

The stress hormone most of us are familiar with is commonly called “adrenaline”, and the medical name for this hormone is “epinephrine”. Epinephrine (the compound found in epi-pens to counteract a severe allergic reaction) is the main hormone of the “fight-or-flight” stress response. This hormone raises blood pressure, raises pulse rate, increases anxiety, causes hypervigilance, and can cause tremors or jittery nerves. When we encounter stress, the body releases more epinephrine, expecting to need a physiologic response to the stress. Increased epinephrine, the “fight or flight” hormone can result in high blood pressure, headaches, increased anxiety, palpitations, arrhythmias and increased work burden on the heart that can cause angina and/or lead to a heart attack. Over time, this abundance of epinephrine can result in fatigue and exhaustion. Elevated blood pressure in the short term is not necessarily harmful as long as it does not get too high. But a persistently elevated blood pressure from constant stress can result in heart failure and kidney failure. The high blood pressure increases wall tension in the heart itself, and increases wall tension inside arteries throughout the body, which increases the risk of an unstable plaque rupturing.

Once we understand the different types of stress, and what harm they can cause to your body, we should discuss methods to reduce stress in your life. You will never rid yourself of stress. You will always face some type of stress, and a new stress will occur before the old ones resolve, so you just need to accept this fact and go about coming up with techniques to control how stress affects you. These are my techniques to combat stress. Since most stress occur at the workplace, a lot of my examples are workplace examples. If your stress exists at home, or related to finances, you will need to tailor your adjustments to focus on your home or financial situation.

  1. Recognize it – the first step in overcoming a problem is to recognize it. Don’t attempt to ignore it, explain it away or make excuses for it. Identify the good and bad stresses in your life, so you can make a conscious effort to channel the stress into creative energy and control it.

  2. Acknowledge it and allow additional time to complete tasks. Knowing that you are under a physical stress can be easier to cope with, if you budget additional time. If you are on crutches or in a orthopedic shoe, you will need additional time to travel to your car, go to the restroom, or move around your office. Budgeting additional time can help you keep the mental stress stemming from the physical stress under control. Wake up a half hour early, enjoy a slower walk from your car to your work area, and you will immediately see the wisdom in not trying to rush when you need longer to complete usual tasks.

  3. Budget time in your schedule to “decompress” and work off nervous energy. Sometimes, the short breaks and built-in easy tasks can make a big difference in breaking the monotony of mental stress from making tough decisions all day. A professor once told me that you NEED the simple brainless tasks, because a full workday of complex, stressful high-level decisions can take a tremendous toll on your mental well-being. The easy decisions help to give your brain a break.

  4. Make the gym a part of your daily routine. It is well proven that physical exercise is the best stress reliever. “blowing off steam” or “burning off excess energy” are different ways of describing the effect that muscular exercise has on the body after a stressful day of work.

  5. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and energy drinks – the short term “high” is much more brief than the three to four hour low that you have to fight through to perform your job duties. The 5 hour energy drink advertisements are a BAD idea – they are no different than bailing out your bad financial decisions by visiting a cash advance store – the vicious cycle becomes even more difficult to break once you are in the cycle.

  6. Treat yourself to a splurge activity – a dinner out, a dessert, an article of clothing you have been eyeing , or a visit to the salon or spa as a reward for hard work – these splurge activities may only be once a week or once a month, but the anticipation creates “good stress” and motivates you to perform at a higher level.

  7. Make lists – write down things to prevent yourself from forgetting. This may be a grocery list, a list of people you need to call back, a list of emails you need to send, or a list of coworkers you need to smile and say hello to. Making lists always gives you peace of mind that you have not forgotten something.

  8. Make a daily plan of tasks to accomplish for the day – check off each one as you complete them. This gives positive reinforcement of success with each task checked off. The small steps you are demonstrating to yourself give you a boost of confidence as you tackle the toughest tasks on your list.

  9. Make physical connection a habit – don’t underestimate the power of touch. Volumes of research have proven that touching increases calmness and relaxation – a gentle squeeze of a coworker’s arm or shoulder may seem harmless but make a world of difference to that person. Compliment and hug your spouse – the release of oxytocin in the brain following touch has been proven to reduce stress.

  10. Resist the temptation to arrive at hasty conclusions – make a point to listen to a situation before reacting. Count to ten, breath deeply, and try to see the other person’s viewpoint before answering. Be kind.

  11. Compliment others and smile at others. This creates a positive cycle of encouragement between coworkers and family members, and helps ease tension that develops over the work day. If you can create a culture of encouragement among your coworkers, you will swim in a much happier work environment that you look forward to being a part of.

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