Did you know that the winter months, particularly December, have the highest incidents of heart attacks?1 While this could be attributed to the time of year and overindulgence, emotional stress is also believed to be a major factor. Stress is your mind-body response to the thrills and challenges of the world around you. It can come and go quickly (acute stress). Stress can also drag on for years and feel like intense anxiety (chronic stress). When you’re stressed, your body jumpstarts the “fight or flight” response as a reaction to perceived danger. Before you even have a chance to mentally process what’s happening, your body is preparing to enter a fist fight with a shark, or send you running from a spider.
While you can’t eliminate all causes of stress in your life, you can better understand your mind-body response and how to handle it.
Stress and Your Body
Here’s what’s happening inside your body when you’re stressed out:
Your Heart Races—The cardiovascular system responds strongly and quickly to stress. Your heart rate increases; your heart muscles contract strongly. Your blood vessels dilate, increasing the amount of blood sent to your muscles. Your blood pressure increases, and your body pumps out more stress hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol).
Your Blood Sugar Spikes—When your body releases stress hormones, your liver produces more glucose to give your body more energy. Your body should be able to handle unused blood sugar, unless you have diabetes. If you have diabetes and are experiencing stress, insulin may not be available or be used effectively, causing glucose to build up in your blood.
Your Stomach Hurts—You may experience nausea, stomach pain, or acid reflux when you’re stressed because your digestion process is disrupted. This may reduce your body’s nutrient absorption and affect how fast food moves through your body, causing constipation or diarrhea.
Your Body Aches—When you encounter stress, your muscles tense up, which can cause body aches and headaches.
If you’re in immediate danger, this response is just what you need to act quickly. When you’re out of harm’s way, your body will naturally calm down. You may even feel temporarily exhausted from the rapid changes your body just experienced.
Unfortunately, the “fight or flight” response isn’t particularly useful when you’re experiencing daily stressors like work and family conflicts. Stressing out while you’re stuck in traffic, or looking at your never ending to-do list isn’t going to help you.
Chronic stress can take a toll on your heart and blood vessels. When the cardiovascular system experiences this stress response again and again, your risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke may increase. Ongoing stress may also contribute to inflammation in your arteries, increasing cardiovascular risk. If your muscles are constantly tense, you can end up with chronic muscle pain and tension headaches.
Stress can impact your mood and even your behavioral choices. Have you ever thought, “I’ve had a stressful day, so I need a strong drink, a candy bar or a bag of chips”? When you’re stressed, you may turn to comfort foods, alcohol or mindless eating. Or maybe you lose your appetite and forget to eat all day. These behaviors can lead to feelings of physical and mental exhaustion, irritability, lack of motivation and restlessness—making it even harder to exercise, get enough sleep and eat healthfully. This can cause you even more stress, as you fall into a pattern of unhealthy choices.
The good news is you can make better choices, even when you’re stressed out! Next time you’re stressed, give these techniques a try:
Breathe Deeply—When you take a deep breath, you deliver more oxygen to your brain, your blood, and your muscles. This can help lower your blood pressure, slow your heart rate, and relax your muscles. Take a few deep breaths during times of intense, acute stress to help you calm down and refocus. And establish a brief, daily deep-breathing practice during your lunch hour or at the end of the day to help your mind and body recover from daily life.
Have Some Fun—Give yourself permission to step away from ongoing stressors to do something you enjoy. Distracting yourself with an art project, reading for pleasure, playing with your kids or pets, or leisurely cooking can instantly lower your blood pressure and help you feel more focused and content overall.
Get Active—We all know that regular exercise provides long-term health benefits. But even 15–20 minutes of running, dancing, yoga or lifting weights when you’re stressed can give you a burst of endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Being active will leave you feeling re-energized. Plus, it’s hard to think about a bad day at the office when you’re sweating!
Be Social—Sharing your concerns and feelings with a friend or family member is sometimes all you need to de-stress. Just try to avoid escalating the conversation to the point where you get even more worked up. Sharing a good laugh is often the best remedy for a stressful day.
Get Some Sleep—While you may feel that you have too much to do and no time to waste, getting enough rest gives your body time to recover from stressful events. Sleeping 7-8 hours every night—and especially during stressful times—is what your mind and body need to wake refreshed and ready to tackle the day ahead.
Listen to the Signs – Over the holidays, many people ignore stress and heart attack signals as they don’t want to address them on the holiday. However, remember that heart attacks do happen and if you are having any symptoms, don’t wait to see a healthcare professional.