Is Stress Affecting Your Health?: Tips for Remaining Resilient
Nov 30, 2013 03:16PM
By Mimi Guarneri, M.D., FACC
In a groundbreaking 2005 study, biologist Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., and psychologist Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D., discovered that chronic stress speeds up aging in cells. They found that women with the highest levels of ongoing stress had cells that had aged 10 years beyond their biological age. The research also linked stress to the development of chronic disease.
As a cardiologist, I’ve been taught by my patients that stress can truly lead to disease. When I think about the common medical conditions I treat, it is easy to see how they are made worse by stress. For example, stress increases blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. My patients are surprised to learn that stress can also make them fat. The hormone cortisol, which we produce in stressful situations, leads to weight on our midline. Stress can also lead to fatigue, memory loss, insomnia and even osteoporosis.
Before stress takes a physical toll, it usually takes an emotional one. When people feel overwhelmed, they often respond with anger, fear or depression. Those emotions can trigger the release of stress hormones, setting off nearly 1,400 chemical reactions in the body and brain that are intimately linked to a variety of health issues. In addition to seeing the medical challenges mentioned above, we see irregular heart rhythm, angina or coronary constriction, headaches, muscle tension, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and more. Anger alone can increase the risk of a heart attack by about 230 percent.
Fortunately, such damaging reactions aren’t inevitable. It’s how people perceive and react to what happens to them that determines how their bodies respond. Two people can have the same experience, such as being cut off in traffic, but one may react negatively while the other responds with resiliency.
How can you enhance resiliency and “find your strength in the storm”? Start by practicing a few basic behaviors that will become second nature in a short time. The easiest tool I use with my patients is the breath. Our autonomic or automatic nervous system is controlled by our breathing. Simply take a breath in for four seconds and then slowly release it for seven seconds. Your body will go into a state of deep relaxation. You may want to say to yourself, “I am breathing in peace” on the in-breath and “I am breathing out tension” on the out-breath.
Make a conscious effort to stop thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Instead, pay attention to the here and now. One simple way to practice this mindful behavior is to adopt a mantra, a short phrase or single word repeated, such as “present moment, only moment” or “peace.” Research shows that thishelps calm the mind and breaks the cycle of jumping from one thought to the next, which can provoke anxiety. I encourage my patients to use their mantra throughout the day. You can repeat your sacred or healing word while waiting on line or stuck in traffic. By repeating your mantra throughout the day, you become less inclined to worry about the future or regret the past. Research has also shown that repeating a mantra at night helps relieve insomnia.
Similarly, taking a few minutes to meditate each day helps build resilience by promoting clarity of thought and a calmer, more measured response to events. Meditation also lowers blood pressure and cholesterol and decreases anxiety and pain. Even just 20 minutes per day in contemplative meditation can have a profound effect.
More tips for dealing with stress
There are simple ways we can deal with stress every day:
- Try to avoid taking things personally and controlling everything that happens. Remember the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
- Exercise, especially outdoors in nature. Exercise produces hormones that improve depression and relieve stress.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Every day, write down five to 10 things for which you are grateful. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, focus on all the good in life.
- Forgive. Research shows people who forgive experience less stress and anger than those who carry grudges. Forgiveness doesn’t right a wrong, but it does allow you to reclaim your power over your emotions. Forgiveness has been shown to decrease blood pressure, relieve muscle spasms and improve well-being.
- Last but certainly not least, laugh as often as possible. Laughter helps relieve stress and triggers positive changes in the body. It truly is the best medicine.
Get support at the Center for Well Being
For many, the support of others is the best defense against stress. The Center for Well Being, located in Morristown, Summit and Montville, NJ, offers a wide range of modalities to help people learn to reduce stress. “Stress reduction is a common need we see in many of our clients,” says Emilie Rowan, the center’s director of programming.“We keep adding classes and services to keep up with the growing demand.”
Some of the ways in which the Center for Well Being helps is through acupuncture, Reiki and massage. These therapies are wonderfully effective in treating anxiety and stress and providing pain management because they move stagnant energy in the body, release toxins and offer an overall feeling of relaxation.
The center also offers group classes in yoga, meditation, singing bowls and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) to help people learn how to slow down, be present in the moment and be mindful with every breath.
Also very popular at the center is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a nationally acclaimed eight-week program that helps people take charge of their life and cope more effectively with their stress. Clients report that its benefits include finding peace, sleeping better, losing weight, and managing pain-reducing medications in addition to reducing their overall stress.
Mimi Guarneri, M.D., specializes in cardiovascular disease and integrative medicine and serves as a senior advisor in integrative medicine at Atlantic Health. For more information on the Center for Well Being, visit Atlantichealth.org/centerforwellbeing.