One of the things I realized early in my career is that perhaps the most overlooked—yet most important—cause of heart disease is chronic psychological stress. Stress triggers our body’s fight-or-flight response. And while that’s well and good when we’re faced with some type of acute danger, it's another story altogether when the response is sustained over a long period of time.
Stress Can Damage Your Heart
The physical changes that fight-or-flight creates can be incredibly damaging. Each time the response is triggered, the body releases biochemicals that promote blood clotting, inflammation, arterial constriction, high blood pressure, death of heart cells and dangerous alterations in heart rate variability, as well as insulin resistance and diabetes. That’s not a cocktail you want coursing through your veins if you have cardiovascular concerns!
Fortunately, if you can learn to recognize the triggers of your stress and defuse them, you will be less prone to angina, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and other heart health issues. Here are eight time-tested heart-health tips for reducing stress that my patients have found helpful. Use them on a regular basis to maintain the ideal mind-body balance that promotes heart health.
Tip for Reducing Stress No. 1: Breathe Deeply
Breathing deeply puts you back in touch with your body and brings emotions to the surface. Your body becomes more alive, increasing your energy, vitality and passion for living. To breathe deeply and fully, take deep breaths in through your nose and feel air fill your lungs. Then, slowly exhale through your mouth, allowing yourself to sigh. If you are dealing with especially intense stress or anxiety, try adding the Squeeze and Breathe exercise, which calms the body as well as helps to detoxify it for improved heart health.
Tip for Reducing Stress No. 2: Release Your Anger
Suppressed anger and heartbreak are especially detrimental to heart health. If this is an issue that affects you, getting in touch with your emotions—and then letting them go—can be extraordinarily therapeutic. Start by expressing them. Sometimes I encourage patients to kick and shout to release long-buried hurts and anger. Using your voice to express negativity, jutting out your jaw and making a fist, and even striking out or hitting pillows all can ease tension, particularly in your upper back and neck.
Interested in more heart-health tips for reducing stress? Learn my four-step technique that helps you manage your anger.
Tip for Reducing Stress No. 3: Laugh
Laughter is so beneficial to heart health. When you laugh with your whole body, the depth of your breathing increases and the energy trapped in your chest, diaphragm and other muscles is released. Laughter also releases endorphins and DHEA, hormonal markers of health and well-being. In one innovative year-long experiment, cardiac patients who watched a comedy show on a daily basis had significantly lower stress hormone levels and blood pressure readings, and needed less medication than those who didn’t.
Tip for Reducing Stress No. 4: Explore Bodywork
Treat yourself to a massage or other type of bodywork, such as Reiki, Feldenkrais or the Alexander Technique—relaxation therapies that lower heart rate, promote muscle relaxation, help break up scar tissue, relieve certain types of pain and improve circulation. Most importantly for heart health, bodywork can also release blocked energy and emotions that are stored in the body.
Tip for Reducing Stress No. 5: Categorize Your Stressors
Is the problem you’re wrestling with something that you can’t change, or something you may be able to change in some constructive way? An important heart-health tip is to focus your energy on issues that you can actually do something about, and not on situations beyond your control.
Tip for Reducing Stress No. 6: Remember a Happier Time
When you feel your pulse begin to rise, you can short-circuit the stress response by concentrating on a past moment of intense joy. It doesn’t matter what the occasion was. It could be the birth of a child, an engagement or marriage, or being recognized for an accomplishment. The key is to choose an event that brings up positive feelings. Then put yourself back in that moment—feel it, smell it, taste it and live it all over again. The upshot of reliving these past positive emotions is that you effectively cancel out the negative ones caused by the stressful situation.
Tip for Reducing Stress No. 7: Meditate or Pray
Research has shown that people who attend church or pray regularly, have lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and suicide. Also, simple meditation—done at five- to 10-minute intervals during the day—can offset the chronic release of cortisol that characterizes the stress reaction and so negatively affects heart health.
You can do a simple meditation by focusing on a phrase that is meaningful to you, such as “The Lord is my shepherd,” or “Hail Mary, full of grace.” If you’re not religious, any other word or phrase will work for this heart-health tip. Just close your eyes and say your phrase silently as you exhale. If stray thoughts enter your mind, gently bring your focus back to your phrase. Use this technique for 10 to 15 minutes, once or twice daily, or as needed.
Tip for Reducing Stress No. 8: Pet a Pet
Studies confirm what you’ve probably known all along: Animals—especially those with which you’ve had a long-term relationship—can be good for your heart health. The survival rate of people who suffer a heart attack has been found to be five times greater among those who leave the hospital and go home to a loving pet than those who go home to an empty house or a judgmental spouse! If you can sufficiently care for an animal, I highly recommend looking into adoption at a local shelter. There are always animals in need of a good home. Your heart will thank you for it.
More Dr. Sinatra Heart-Health Tips
What two nutritional supplements should everyone take for optimum heart health? Find out which two supplements I recommend for one and all to maintain a healthy heart.
What kind of exercise is best for optimum heart health? Read about my two favorite heart-healthy forms of exercise.
What’s the best diet for optimum heart health? Learn the details of my heart-healthy Pan-Asian Mediterranean diet.