Usually during February, I spend many days discussing the heart. After all, February is Heart Month and as a spokesperson for “Go Red for Women” through the American Heart Association, it makes sense that this would be the topic in most demand.
This year, however, things were a little different. I did speak quite a bit about the heart in general, women’s heart health in particular and lifestyle interventions that can impact heart disease risk, from diet and exercise to the role of supplements. In addition, for whatever reason (and I can think of more than a few), one issue took center stage: Stress. Instead of just giving lectures and corporate presentations centering around the heart, time and time again I have been specifically asked to talk about stress.
You might now be thinking, “Why is a cardiologist talking about stress?” For good reason! Stress is a profound risk factor for heart disease and an important influencer on heart health. As the saying goes, stress is the new smoking. And by “stress,” I don’t just mean worrying about things. I also mean anxiety, depression and the development of unhealthy coping behaviors—all efforts by the body to manage a natural impulse that is meant to be useful for survival, but which has become unfortunately chronic in our society.
Although stress can cause a lapse in healthy habits, maintaining (or starting) healthy habits is one of the key ways to fight the negative effects of stress. Life is stressful, and there isn’t a lot we can do about that part. However, without a strong constitution and infrastructure built from high-quality, nutrient-dense food, regular exercise and the cultivation of positive social connections and fulfilling work, we will be unable to manage much of anything, let alone the crushing stress that plagues us in our often-unsettled and overly scheduled modern lives.
This isn’t a new idea. In 1976, Bill Hettler, the co-founder of the National Wellness Institute, discussed six areas of wellness he believed were critical for people. One must cultivate emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual and spiritual wellness. This is admittedly a tall order, and could involve addressing issues in all aspects of human life, from a person’s diet and exercise regimen to social network, values and belief system. Today, this point of view is a valuable one to remember.
When I talk about stress, I believe it is critical to look at it from both sides—not just what stresses us out, but what effectively de-stresses us. We need to cultivate all the areas of our lives that build our physical and emotional infrastructure so we can combat the stress that threatens to bulldoze our hearts and our very lives.
Let’s break this down:
- If we are too tired and fatigued from lack of sleep, our ability to manage whatever is challenging us decreases. We’ve all been there.
- If we do not nourish ourselves with a high-nutrient diet, filled with the vitamins and minerals needed to sustain our daily functioning, then dealing with any adversity can become far more overwhelming.
- If we don’t take time to find what makes us feel worthy and valued—and maybe even loved—then the struggle to find our place and our worth will surely outweigh our ability to combat stress.
- If we don’t condition our hearts—through exercise–to fuel us throughout the day, then we are much more likely to become fatigued and simply pooped out.
Sure, stress management can be, well…stressful. Especially until you get in the habit. But here’s a cold hard fact: Life is more about learning to overcome adversity than it is about reclining in a cushion of perpetual happiness and ease. Dealing with the hardships that come our way helps us become better and we can appreciate the good times even more.
I wish I could say there was a magical quick fix to deal with stress, but the bottom line is that stress management is about self-care. When you are physically at your best, then you have access to your greatest anti-stress weapons. The foe that is stress will be less able to beat you.
The next step is finding strategies for dealing with stress. One of my favorites is meditation. I have talked about transcendental meditation frequently as it provides a long-lasting and research-proven effect on the physiology of the stress response. It helps block the stress hormones, like epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol, that can quickly drive the body into a downward spiral of stress.
But meditation isn’t the only way to deal with stress. There are many other practices that can stop stress in its tracks, from yoga to mindfulness to the regular practice of gratitude. The mind-body connection is so well delineated in Eastern cultures that these practices to combat stress have been part of their lives for thousands of years. Now that we are wise to these techniques, the Western consciousness can benefit, too. Many of these techniques, practices and rituals not only lower stress hormones, but also increase feel-good hormones so we can feel better, stronger, and more capable. Even simple deep breathing can accomplish this.
A world without stress does not exist, but what does exist is a world where we have learned to manage stress with knowledge, grace and discipline. This is critical if we want to preserve health and facilitate wellness. Cultivate your mind, body, spirit and soul, and I promise you will thrive. Keep your eye on the road, on your future and on the wonders, delights and, yes, the stresses of your journey. And always remember that stress is just a byproduct of human life, an event on the side of the road. Just drive by; no rubber-necking! You’ve seen that broken-down stress bus before, and you’ve got better places to be.
Click here to buy Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s book, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life