Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. Spouses dying within hours or days of each other. People who are diagnosed with a terminal illness or suddenly pass on ‘out of the blue’, shortly after retirement from a lengthy career. Your visit to the doctor’s office, and associating ‘white coat syndrome’ sends your blood pressure increasing far beyond what it typically should be. What do all of different situations have in common? They all depict scenarios of adverse psychological stressors directly triggering some level of change in the cardiovascular state. In other words, pretty much every type of stressor out there has an effect on heart health.
The concept of stress and ramifications of acute and chronic stressors throughout life is nothing new. In my medical practice, ‘stress’ is one of the most common patient complaints. Here is what happens physiologically when the body is faced with a stressful event – the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive (much like backing away from a approaching bear), which can weaken the heart cells, thereby increasing potential speed for blood clotting, and ultimately setting the stage for arterial rupture and probable heart attack or stroke.
Regardless of how variable the response is to stress, stressors fall into two main categories: acute vs. chronic.
These events or situations that typically occur with little to no warning: sudden job change or loss, sudden death in the family, sudden relationship change such as one spouse announcing they wish to divorce, relocation, car accidents, or even natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc. All these types of situations have a common thread as well – sudden emotional trauma. A number of scientific studies were conducted post-California earthquake of 1994, which looked at the dramatic increase of deaths due to cardiovascular disease, on the day of, in contrast to the days preceding the event.
Chronic stressors are not that different – they are perpetual, drawn out, and usually continue to occur without resolution: situations such job stress, marital discord, high drama news, anxiety, nicotine or alcohol intake, lengthy caregiving for a family member, unexpressed anger or unhappiness.
But there is good news here! Despite the stressor triggers, there are many approaches to dealing and coping with where you land on what medicine calls the vulnerability-resilience scale. I am a full proponent of the mind-body connection perspective and its effects on the physical body, especially in cardiovascular changes or disease. When evaluating any patient I look at all factors, customizing a stress management protocol that is as unique to them as a fingerprint. I utilize a variety of natural health approaches, including prescription of herbal medicine, acupuncture, mind-body techniques, vitamin and mineral supplementation that address nutritional deficiencies, and even dietary and lifestyle changes. Here is a sample of different ways to tackle stress head on, supporting your heart health in the process:
- Meditate: Even 20 min. of focused quiet time has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce risk factors for heart disease and stroke
- Disconnect: Avoid the news, electronics, emails, and the like. Take the time every day to simply unplug from the daily barrage of information.
- Exercise: Get your body moving. 30-60 min. of daily walking, can increase endorphins (the ‘happy’ hormone) and strengthen heart muscle
- Stop smoking: Obvious health risks aside, continuous nicotine intake exacerbates stress.
- Get enough rest: Sleep and recovery is crucial after stressful events. 8 hours of sleep per night is the recommended amount for relaxation and recovery.
- Be assertive: Drawing boundaries is crucial to your energy management. Sometimes it’s okay to say ‘no’.
- Let it go: Identify what you can control and what you can’t. Simply put – let what you cannot control, go. Your body doesn’t need to carry that weight.
Ultimately, you can’t avoid stress, but you can definitely manage it and positively shift future risks of cardiovascular health concerns. Here’s to a healthy heart!
Dr. Olena Gill is a Naturopathic Physician and Acupuncturist practicing in Parksville, BC on Vancouver Island. She can be reached at 778-762-3099 or www.indigomedicine.com Disclaimer: Information in this article should not be construed or used as a substitute for medical evaluation or advice. See your Naturopathic Physician for proper evaluation and prescription.