Stress has big implications for your health. From an evolutionary point of view, the stress response is a lifesaving biological function that allows you to instinctively square off against a foe, flee from a predator or take down a prey.
However, those of us living in the modern-day world are now causing this same biological reaction in response to activities and occasions that have no life-threatening implications whatsoever, from speaking in public to filling out tax forms and sitting in traffic jams.
The sheer number of stress-inducing circumstances facing us daily can really make it difficult to turn the stress response off, and marinating in corrosive stress hormones all the time can have very severe consequences for your health.
Stubborn fat accumulation, hypertension and heart attack are just a few of the many health consequences associated with chronic stress. Intense stress can also have potentially deadly consequences.
High-Stress Lifestyle Raises Your Risk Of Heart Attack
There’s no shortage of evidence showing that stress effects your health. And, considering that your heart and mind are so closely interlinked, your mindset can have a particularly substantial impact on your heart health.
According to recent study, stress increases your risk of heart attack and stroke by triggering overactivity in your amygdala. Known as your brain’s fear center, this almond-shaped brain region, situated in your temporal lobe, is activated in response to both real and perceived dangers.
Other recent research recommends the amygdala is also involved with the processing of other feelings, including positive ones, as well as the processing of emotional memories of all kinds.
Still, its participation in fear and risk detection is reputable, and one of its many basic jobs is to keep you safe by biochemically preparing you to fight or flee as needed.
In this study, inflammation levels in addition to brain and bone marrow activity of 293 people were measured. All of the participants were over the age of 30, and none had a diagnosed heart issue.
By the end of the observation period, which lasted between two and five years, 22 people had actually experienced a major cardiac event such as heart attack, stroke or angina (chest pain).
Based on brain scans, the researchers were able to conclude that those with higher activity in the amygdala were at a raised risk of a cardiac event. As it turns out, there appears to be a substantial connection between amygdala activity and arterial inflammation (which is a risk factor for heart attack and stroke).
This was confirmed in another much smaller sub-study involving those with a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here, levels of C-reactive protein were also measured, revealing that those reporting the highest stress levels also had the highest amygdala activity and higher levels of inflammatory markers.
Overactive Fear Response Is a Recipe for Heart Attack and Stroke
In other words, people who are highly stressed have higher activity in the amygdala. This in turn triggers inflammation, which is a risk factor for heart disease. These findings are not concrete evidence of causation, however, and need to be confirmed through additional research.
That said, previous studies have revealed that activation of the amygdala can activate arterial inflammation by setting off immune cell production in the bone marrow. As reported by The Huffington Post:
“A healthy amygdala can help to protect the brain against stress, while an amygdala that’s hyper-excitable as a result of chronic stress or other factors can amplify the stress response.
The new study shows, for the first time, how an overactive amygdala can cause heart attack and stroke. When stress triggers the amygdala, it triggers bone marrow and inflammation of the arteries to create the conditions for a heart attack.
‘Our results provide a unique insight into how stress may result in heart disease,’ Dr. Ahmed Tawakol, a Harvard cardiologist and the study’s lead author, stated … ‘This raises the possibility that reducing stress may produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of mental wellness.'”.
Ilze Bot, Ph.D., a Dutch biopharmaceutical researcher who wrote an accompanying commentary to the study, included:
“In the past years, a growing number of people experience psychosocial stress daily. Heavy workloads, job insecurity or living in hardship are situations that can result in chronically increased stress.
These clinical data develop a connection between stress and cardiovascular disease, hence determining chronic stress as a true risk factor for severe cardiovascular syndromes, which could, offered the increasing number of people with chronic stress, be included in risk evaluations of cardiovascular disease in daily clinical practice.”
Other Ways Stress Can Trigger A Heart Attack
Stress can also promote or set off a heart attack in other ways. For instance, studies have actually shown that as your stress level increases, so do your level of disease-promoting white blood cells, and this is yet another way by which stress can lead to atherosclerosis, plaque rupture and myocardial infarction.
During moments of high stress your body also releases norepinephrine, which researchers claim can cause the dispersal of bacterial biofilms from the walls of your arteries. This dispersal can allow plaque deposits to suddenly break out, thereby activating a heart attack.
An unexpected release of large amounts of stress hormones and rapid elevations in blood pressure may even set off a heart attack or stroke even if you do not have a heart problem. When it comes to broken heart syndrome, the signs of a heart attack take place even though there’s no actual damage to the heart at all.
According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), broken heart syndrome is a “short-lived condition where your heart muscle all of a sudden become weakened or stunned.” The left ventricle (your heart’s largest chamber) also changes shape, which contributes to the momentary dysfunction.
This sudden weakness of the heart is believed to be due to the abrupt release of big quantities of adrenaline and other stress hormones. This is what is believed happened to Debbie Reynolds.
Adrenaline increases your blood pressure and heart rate, and it’s been suggested it may cause narrowing of the arteries that provide blood to your heart, or perhaps bind directly to heart cells allowing large amounts of calcium to enter and render the cells temporarily not able to work properly.
While most will successfully recover, in some, the change of shape of the left ventricle can activate a fatal heart attack. Having a history of neurological issues, such as seizure disorders, and/or a history of psychological health problem is believed to raise your risk. On the upside, while the condition can be deadly and needs instant medical attention, it’s normally a temporary condition that leaves no permanent damage.
Recognizing The Signs Of Stress
Many have gotten so used to being wound up into a stress-knot, they do not even realize the position they’re in. So, the primary step is to recognize that you’re stressed, and after that take steps to address it. Common signs and symptoms of stress include:
|Sleeping poorly, trouble falling asleep and excessive tiredness||Binge drinking|
|Lack of appetite or overeating||Having a “short fuse”/being quick to anger or losing your temper|
|Feeling overwhelmed, sad or irritable; frequent crying or quick to tears||Headaches and/or general aches and pains|
Releasing Your Amygdala’s Death Grip
Knowing the amygdala’s function in inflammation and heart attacks, it seems affordable to conclude that part of the answer is discovering how to lower the activity in your amygdala. When your amygdala is activated by a real or perceived threat, oxygen is shunted from your internal organs, including your brain, to the extremities. Essentially, your body is prepared for fighting– not thinking! After all, thinking is of little use when dealing with a man-eating enemy. Muscle function takes precedence.
Nevertheless, in today’s world, critical thinking is actually exactly what’s needed when facing a stressful scenario, be it a traffic jam or a social difficultly. Fist-fighting is not the most proper solution here, yet because of the stress response, your brain has largely been shut down. Step one, then, is to bring oxygen back to your brain.
Other Helpful Breathing Techniques
There are lots of great breathing techniques out there that will likely do the trick. You may want to explore a couple of different ones to see if one works better than another. Another one we like is the 4-7-8 breathing exercise.
- Sit up straight and place the tip of your tongue up against the back of your front teeth. Keep it there through the whole breathing process.
- Breathe in silently through your nose to the count of four, hold your breath to the count of seven and exhale through your mouth to the count of 8, making an audible “whoosh” sound. That completes one full breath.
- Repeat the cycle another three times, for a total of four breaths. After the first month, you can work your way up to a total of eight breaths per session.
A third method is the regulated breathing technique. If you’re experiencing stress and anxiety or panic attacks, or if you feel very stressed and your mind cannot stop racing, try the following breathing sequence.
Its efficiency stems from the fact that it helps retain and gently accumulate carbon dioxide. This not just helps soothe your breathing however also lowers stress. In other words, the urge to breathe will decline as you enter into a more relaxed state:
- Take a small breath into your nose, followed by a small exhale.
- Hold your nose for 5 seconds in order to hold your breath, and after that release your nose to resume breathing.
- Breathe normally for 10 seconds.
- Repeat the sequence few more times.
Countering Stress With the Relaxation Response
As soon as you have addressed the oxygenation of your brain, next, engage in some sort of physical relaxation technique, as the stress response causes the muscles in your body to tighten up. One easy one that can be done anywhere is to tighten the muscles in an area for a few seconds, then release; moving from area to area. Start with your feet and legs, and move upward. This may even be done in concert with your breathing exercise of choice.
Visualization strategies such as those taught by Dr. Martin Rossman, author of “The Worry Solution” can also be valuable. Images is the natural language of your brain, which is in part why visualization and guided imagery exercises are so effective for changing thoughts and behavior.
As noted by Rossman, the three keys to calmness are breathing, relaxation and visualization. Ideally, do all three. Here’s Rossman’s suggestion for pursuing peace: Breathe and relax your body part by part, then imagine being in a beautiful, peaceful place where you feel safe. This could be either a real or imaginary place. Spend 10 or 20 minutes there, actively envisioning the calmness of your surroundings, to interrupt the stress reaction.
This will disengage your fight or flight response, allowing your physiology to return to equilibrium, or what is also described “the relaxation response.” This is a compensatory repair, renew and recharge state that brings you back to balance.
Mindfulness training– which concentrates on being present in the moment– is another method that can be very helpful. In one study, people who participated in 10 sessions over the course of one month experienced “considerably reduced” stress, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness meditation is a more formal practice of mindfulness, in which you knowingly zone in on, or focus your attention on, specific thoughts or sensations, then observe them in a non-judgmental way.
The Emotional Freedom Technique Is A Targeted Technique You Can Use for Stress Relief
Last but not least, energy psychology methods such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can be extremely effective for reducing stress by helping you to really reprogram your body’s response to the inevitable stress factors of daily life. This is necessary as, generally speaking, a stressor becomes a problem when:
- Your response to it is negative
- Your feelings and emotions are inappropriate for the circumstances
- Your response lasts an exceedingly very long time
- You’re feeling constantly overwhelmed, overpowered or exhausted
EFT is not the same thing as mindfulness; it is completely different and used for different purposes. We regard mindfulness and meditation as tools that are useful for your entire life, like exercise for your mind. Preferably, you should strive to be mindful and use meditation daily.
EFT is different because it works best for targeted stress relief, such as recovering from a psychological trauma or overcoming an addiction. You might only have to use EFT a few times throughout your life, while mindfulness and meditation are life-long ventures.
When you use EFT, simple tapping with the fingertips is used to input kinetic energy onto certain meridians on your head and chest while you think about your specific problem and voice positive affirmations. This mix of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmation works to clear the “short-circuit”– the psychological block– from your body’s bioenergy system, hence restoring your mind and body’s balance, which is vital for perfect health and the healing of chronic stress.
While the video above will quickly teach you how to handle stress, it is necessary to recognize that self-treatment for more severe issues is not suggested. For major or complex concerns, you need a skilled professional to direct you through the process, as there is an incredible art to it; it usually takes years of training to develope the ability to tap on deep-seated issues.