How to kick the habit: Stress – is it hurting my heart?

How to kick the habit: Stress – is it hurting my heart?

Val Gleason, CEO of Newton Medical Center

Val Gleason is the president and chief executive officer at Newton Medical Center. Gleason joined Newton Medical Center in 2004 as vice president of physician services and most recently served as the hospital’s chief clinical integration officer.

She graduated from Newman University with a B.S. in Business and holds an MBA from Baker University. She’s a board-certified nurse executive, advanced.

Val is the president of the American Heart Association – Wichita.

We hear so much about stress these days. The American Institute of Stress defines it as “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension.”  I’ve noticed it’s generally discussed in a negative context. But I’d argue there is a distinct difference between everyday stress and distress. Everyday stress is not normally harmful when you have appropriate coping mechanisms. On the other hand, distress can be very harmful to our bodies and souls. 

Stress is a situation that causes a response. Your senses must quickly understand whether you’re in imminent danger. Consider this:  it’s dusk. You hear the sound of rapidly-approaching footsteps in a parking lot as you walk to your car. Awareness of the stimulus (footsteps) triggers a normal and instant biologic stress response. Called “fight or flight” it is stunningly complex and whole body. Do those footsteps belong to a friend just trying to catch up and say hello or is it a mugger? As your senses assess the scenario, your reaction might be relief at the sight of a smiling friend. Alternatively, the sight of danger could mean running to safety or standing your ground. After the event, coping mechanisms help you sort out whether the danger is fleeting or not. Coping helps you define future reactions to tough situations and assists with the resilience to withstand them. 

In this way, stress and the decision about how to respond to it is normal and expected. We actually encounter stress many times each day. Most situations are simple and minor such as deciding what to wear or making sure to latch the warped outside screen door.  In context most decisions don’t cause much stress at all. But some days, deciding what to wear is stressful, especially when you realize your favorite slacks are still at the dry cleaners. And the snake that crawled under the kitchen table through the open screen door?  Definitely stressful!

Portrait of senior man with headache and having pain his sinus, stress, healthcare concept

Stress and distress

There are degrees of stress, including the worst kind:  distress. Too much stress without adequate coping mechanisms and resilience interferes with good health.  Why?  It’s simple:  the biologic response.  Constant or chronic stress responses can lead to health issues.

What happens to your body when you hear those unexpected footsteps in the dark? Your whole body prepares for a fight or flight response. Hormones are immediately released into your bloodstream that make your heart beat fast and increase your breathing. Blood flow is diverted away from the skin to the brain and to your arms and legs. Your eyes dilate, muscles could shake, and your skin could feel clammy and cold. 

Minor stressors like burning the morning toast may only make your heart beat a little faster for a short time, but seeing a snake in the kitchen likely provokes a full-body “all-in” reaction. Both situations cause a predictable bodily response, and when you have adequate coping mechanisms, the situation is dealt with and dismissed.  Toast more toast. Snake? Call Animal Control.

Old man hold head because he has a migraine, stress, health concept

The effects of stress

During February, we celebrate American Heart Month. Stress is mentioned frequently because the helpful hormones that speed up your heart rate and breathing can also adversely affect your heart. The hormonal response to stress causes your body to use more and more oxygen which in turn can cause your heart rate, and blood pressure to climb. Unchecked, it can even cause an inflammatory response inside the arteries, leading to the plaque build-up that causes heart attacks and sudden death. 

People who have poor emotional coping mechanisms, who have experienced a major traumatic event such as loss of a loved one, or who experience multiple back-to-back stressors are at much higher risk of sudden cardiac events. Unresolved stress responses are absolute predictors of poor cardiac health. If your body has been in stress mode for a long time, it can result in a whole-body response, which is harmful to your heart.

This is why we hear so much about learning healthy ways to cope.  Healthy people are generally resilient to the little stresses and may be better at dealing with the bigger life events and chronic issues that come their way. 

Group of seniors taking a selfie

How to cope

Instead of being victimized by stress, it is possible to learn how to manage it. Here are a few ways to help you cope:

  • Self-help apps, books and websites
  • Support groups
  • Counseling
  • Make/Hang out with friends
  • Volunteer
  • Surround yourself with positive people
  • Find a job you love – and keep it
  • Learn relaxation techniques
  • Find ways to make a difference in the lives of others
  • Practice gratitude
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat healthy
  • Get plenty of sleep

You can learn more about stress and stress management at www.heart.org.