What is stress?
Stress can be your response to the demands of everyday life. Stress is not always a bad thing. In fact, the right amount of stress motivates you to be alert, full of energy and focused on your world. But, too much stress can be harmful to your health. It can cause you to feel tense, anxious, irritable or overwhelmed.
Both your mind and body play a role in your response to stress. First, your thoughts and emotions set the stage for how much stress you experience. Your body then reacts to stress by increasing your muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure. Over time, these changes can cause bigger health problems.
The key to managing stress in your life is to understand the causes of your stress and, then learn how to manage it. Learning these important skills will allow you to improve your health, your work life and your relationships with the people who are most important in your life.
If you are over-stressed, your mind and body will give you warning signs. Take this simple test to see if you have symptoms of too much stress:
- Do you feel like you are not yourself?
- Do you feel overwhelmed?
- Do you feel unable to cope with the workload that you are usually able to handle?
- Do you often feel anxious, angry, irritable or tense?
- Do you get headaches or stiffness/tension in your muscles, jaw or back?
- Do you feel unable to concentrate or to remember things as well?
- Do you frequently have upset stomach, skin rashes, racing heartbeat, or sweaty palms?
- Are you more tired or have a lower energy level than usual?
- Do you lack interest in things that normally used to interest you?
- Do you have trouble sleeping?
- Are you using alcohol or drugs to escape problems you may have?
If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, you may be feeling signs of stress overload. When you have stress overload, you may become forgetful or have difficulty concentrating. The quality of your work may decline and you may feel alone or isolated from the people around you.
How does stress affect your heart?
Unmanaged stress, especially stress-related anger and hostility, can affect your health. It may cause:
- high blood pressure
- irregular heart rhythms
- damage to your arteries.
- higher cholesterol levels
- the development and progression of coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis)
- a weakened immune system.
In times of stress, people often turn to harmful habits to reduce their stress, such as cigarette smoking, overeating, use of drugs or over-use of alcohol. All of these factors put you at additional risk for heart disease and stroke.
A recent heart event, procedure or recent diagnosis of heart disease can produce stress. You may have worries related to having heart disease, the treatment or financial concerns. But, this is also a time to look at your health behaviors, take notice of things you can change, and begin to live a healthier lifestyle – physically and mentally.
How can you gain control?
You are in charge of your body. Your mind talks to your body and your body talks to your mind. You can learn to control your inner "self-talk" and enhance your health. Try these tips:
- Begin to take note of things that cause you to feel stressed.
- Accept the fact you may not be able to change certain situations.
- Take time out each day to relax.
- Exercise on most days.
- Take care of your body. Eat a healthy diet.
- Get enough sleep.
- Take control of your schedule. Prioritize what needs to be done each day.
- Take time to praise yourself for a job well done.
- Avoid negative "self-talk." Avoid "what-ifs" or focusing on that which you don’t know or have no control.
- Get answers to questions that may be worrying you (such as your health).
- Learn relaxation exercises.
- Control stress at work:
- Switch from caffeinated to decaffeinated coffee or herbal tea.
- Leave work at lunchtime to take a short walk or relax outside your work environment.
- Take a 5-minute relaxation break – practice a relaxation exercise.
- Get help. If you are having a hard time controlling your stress on your own or you are using bad habits, such as cigarettes, alcohol or drugs to reduce your stress, you may need help learning how to control your stress. There are many options:
- Self-help books
- Individual counseling
- Group counseling
- Community self-help and support groups
- Stress management home training course
- Work with your doctors to find the best way to learn stress management. You can become your heart’s best friend and protector.
These tips will help you learn to gain control over your stress and lead a more healthy, balanced and productive life.
Take a stress-break. Learn how to relax. There are several techniques. You have to learn which one will work best for you. Also, practice makes perfect. Don’t expect to see results after the first try. You have to learn the technique and practice to get the best result.
When you are stressed, your muscles tense up, including those that control breathing. Your breathing becomes shallower and the rate increases as the body attempts to get more oxygen. To reduce this stress response:
- Pick a quiet place, where you will not be disturbed.
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Make sure your clothing is not restricting your breathing.
- Close your mouth and breathe in naturally through your nose. Inhale deeply and slowly (count to 3).
- Breathe out through your nose, slowly and deeply.
- Repeat until you feel your muscles relax and your breathing slow down to a more comfortable rate.
- Tune out stress by tuning into a relaxing image.
- Pick a quiet place, where you will not be disturbed.
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Take in a few deep breaths, to help you relax.
- Begin to create a paradise in your mind. Imagine you are on a beach in Hawaii, cruising on the French Riviera, or fishing at your favorite lake. Think of as many details as you can – how does it look, how does it smell, can you feel the warmth of the sun, or hear the sounds of the ocean?
- Practice this image often – you may find it helpful to make a tape you can listen to, coaching you to remember the image. Then, when stress strikes, you will be able to bring the image alive in sight, smell and sound!
With training, you can learn to relax and gain control over your body’s response to stress. Biofeedback training involves several sessions with a specially trained psychologist. Special monitors are used to provide precise, immediate information about muscle tension, heart rate, and other vital signs as a person attempts to relax. Biofeedback helps you learn the skills necessary to learn to relax and reduce stress. Ask your doctor to recommend a qualified professional.
For more information about stress:
For more information about techniques to manage stress, please call the Department of Psychology Stress Management Program at 216.444.6115 or 800.223.2273 ext. 46115. Or, call the Center for Integrative Medicine Clinical Practice at 216.986.HEAL.
Stress Management and Your Heart, Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute, Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation Program, Cleveland, Ohio (216) 444-9353
Keeping the Heart Healthy, In (E. Topol, ed.) Cleveland Clinic Heart Book , Hyperion: New York. pp.19-43.