You’re at work. The deadline is approaching. Your boss just emailed. Your colleague says she hasn’t put the data report together yet. You can feel your heart rate rising. Thump-thump, thump-thump…
For some people, this is a normal day—constantly under the gun and taxing your heart health. “When you’re under stress, your blood pressure is rising, and your cortisol level is going up,” says Ken Yeager, PhD, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program. “Heightened periods like this, over the long-term, will damage the heart.”
Stress may also trigger the autonomic nervous system, sending your body into perpetual fight-or-flight mode, and slowing the whole body’s healing process. Yeager points to the work of Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, who studies the effects of stress on healing. “In one study, they actually made small punch-hole wounds in the cheek,” explains Yeager. “Those under the most stress healed slower than other test subjects. Stress slows down the healing process. If you sustain that damage to the heart, it does not heal. It leads to issues like metabolic syndrome—which is obesity, cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes,” says Yeager.
Too much stress may overwork your heart, so it’s important to monitor how hard (and how long) you work without taking a break. And to take into account the tactics you use for stress reduction—which may not always be heart-healthy. Here are a few ways to effectively counter anxiety and break bad heart habits.
Keep Healthy Snacks in Arm’s Reach
A funny thing happened to Yeager when he was in college. “I used to keep Cheetos around, and I realized that my keyboard was turning orange while I was working,” he says. “People overcompensate in their ways. Some, like me, are stress-eaters.” General health is tied with mental health, so you need to keep both in check; if you’re in a high-stress environment, take away negative stress-relievers, like processed snacks—which, many experts believe, are gateways to conditions like heart disease. Instead, keep fruit, veggies, peanut butter, vegetable-based smoothies, nuts, and other smart snacks on hand.
Embrace Comedic Relief
“Laughter is key,” says Yeager, pointing to the work of Herbert Benson, who spent 50 years researching the power of relaxation to bring down disease biomarkers. “If you can’t get away from your desk, look at those pictures of baby animals. Look at those silly YouTube videos. These are actually helping you reduce stress,” says Yeager. The hormone oxytocin is released, which is the body’s counterpoint to the stress-hormone cortisol.
Take a Walk During the Workday
People under stress often overcompensate by working harder, says Yeager—something researcher and endocrinologist Hans Selye coined “General Adaptation Syndrome.” The only problem with that tendency is stress builds and builds to a state of exhaustion, which may leave you more at risk for issues like hypertension and heart attack. That’s why getting out and walking is huge, says Yeager. “If you’re stressed, walking can help you clear your mind and you may begin to see reductions in blood pressure and heart rate,” he says. You’ll also be racking up the steps—remember, 10,000 a day is the goal.
Meditate Before Bed
Stressed-out people often have a hard time sleeping, notes Yeager. “Finding balance in life is protective for your heart,” he says. “It’s like a three-legged stool. If one leg breaks, then it all falls down. People who are working too much, sleep too little. ” Get yourself into a semi-dark room, says Yeager, and disengage from devices that emit blue light (things like smartphones, computers, TVs, and more). Breathe slowly for five minutes, with three-second inhales and three-second exhales. Clear your mind—and then go about your nightly ritual, getting ready for bed as you normally would. When you climb underneath the covers, do your five-minute meditation again. Yeager uses his Fitbit tracker to track his personal sleep trends, and says meditating has helped his sleep efficiency to skyrocket.
How do you manage stress? Join the conversation below.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.