Are you feeling stressed out lately? With so much going on in the country that’s rapidly changing by the minute, so many are having trouble managing stress. Managing stress with a heart condition is hard enough on a good day, and now there are a thousand other variables thrown in the mix.
It’s even more imperative because you’ve got a heart condition. Stress can cause a multitude of physiological changes in the body. Chronic stress can lead to structural changes in the brain and a decrease in brain volume, thereby affecting cognition and memory (1). Stress also has a negative effect on learning ability; i.e. it’s hard to learn something new when you’re in a state of stress (2). It is true that some stress is good for our body, and can motivate us to perform better in the short term, but chronic stress eventually wears the body down in just about every aspect.
While some stress is good for some aspects of function, stress in all its forms seems to have a negative effect on the heart. During acutely stressful situations, for those who are otherwise healthy, the effect is short-lived and the body returns to its normal state soon after. But for those with heart conditions, that may not be the case.
Stress and your heart
The first thing that happens in a stressful situation, is the heart rate increases (3). You know that “heart beating out of your chest” feeling? As a result, the blood pressure then rises (4). Other effects that coincide with these are narrowing of blood vessels (vasoconstriction), increase in blood lipids, blood clotting changes, and increased production of plaques (5). These conditions can lead to arrhythmias and heart attacks.
Besides the physiological impacts of stress, the way we tend to deal with mental stress can negatively affect heart health. I’m talking about coping strategies like drinking alcohol (often to excess), smoking tobacco, partaking in illicit drugs, and even eating more food and less healthy foods.
Stress and your immune system
Chronic stress can also impair the immune system. Studies have consistently shown those who experience chronic stress also have a higher risk of chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease, as well as acute illnesses, like the common cold and flu (6). Coronavirus would fall into this same catagory.
Stress modulates the central nervous system, and affects the release of hormones. Normal state hormones, such as growth hormones, decrease, and stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline increase (7). In the short term, this is meant to preserve life (i.e. running away from a threat like a saber toothed tiger), but if this state persists over time, it runs the whole system down.
Managing stress in healthy ways
But while managing stress with a heart condition might be difficult, it’s not impossible with a few helpful strategies. Even in these times of uncertainty, it’s still possible to respond to stress in health-promoting ways. It’s sometimes the only thing we can control. Here are some of my top tips for dealing with stress in healthy ways during these trying times:
- Schedule quiet time each day for reflection. This could be a time of prayer, meditation, or just quiet reflection. You time.
- Regulate your social media and news consumption. While it’s important to stay informed, too much can cause unnecessary anxiety that can spiral out of control. Set some boundaries around when and how much media you’ll consume.
- Stay active. Physical activity is important for overall health and immune function. Continue to practice social distancing by going for a walk or run in your neighborhood or local park or using On-Demand exercise programs.
- Stay organized. For many people, disorganization creates mental chaos. Spend some time first thing in the morning or later in the evening organizing things and thoughts for the day.
- Breathe deeply. Did your mom ever tell you to count to 10 and take a deep breath when you were angry? It really does work! Taking deep breaths increases circulating oxygen in your blood, and helps to slow down your heart rate and other stress responses. Practice taking a few deep breaths at a time.
- Call a friend. Social isolation can exacerbate anxiety and depression. Even if you can't go for coffee, a simple phone call can help you feel less alone.
- Do something you truly enjoy. This could be a bubble bath, reading a book, or putting on some music and dancing. The sky is the limit, but make sure it’s a health-promoting activity (i.e. not binging on frozen Thin Mints).
- Have a plan. I’m talking about a plan for making sure your medications get refilled before you need them. A plan to make sure you have enough healthy food in your home (read my recent article on stocking your heart healthy pantry). A plan for staying active. A plan for maintaining good hygiene practices. And a plan for making sure your loved ones are okay. Having a plan can reduce stress by removing as many unknowns as possible. While you may not know when you'll need those plans, at least you’ll know what to do.
- Try a stress management app, like HeadSpace or a multitude of others. YouTube has some free options as well (search “guided meditation” or “guided imagery”). Sometimes using a guided stress management option can be helpful to keep your mind from wandering to the topics that make you anxious.
- Adopt a personal mantra. A personal mantra can be helpful to recite over and over in moments you find you’re having a particularly hard time. Something like “this too shall pass,” or even a single word like “breathe.”
- Create a gratitude journal. Each day, spend a few minutes writing down what and who you were grateful for that day. Read your journal when you need a pick-me-up.
- Get outside each day. Even if it's a few minutes to drink your coffee on the porch. Getting fresh air is helpful in managing stress and staying mindful.
- Join an online support group for people in similar situations. Whether on Facebook or a simple email listserve, having that connectedness can prove invaluable!
Do you have some go-to tips for managing stress with a heart condition while social distancing? Let me know in the comments!