Stress is more than just frustration at work or exasperation from a packed schedule — in some instances, it’s a precursor to deadly debilitations.
Stress is a general term given to the body’s responses to stressors, which “induce activation of the sympathetic nervous system responsible for flight-or-fight response,” says Krishna Tummalapalli, cardiologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The sympathetic nervous system releases hormones like adrenaline, cortisol and serotonin, which lead to accelerated heart and lung action, inhibition of digestion and a number of other physiological responses.
The human body, while complex and adaptable, isn’t equipped to handle constant sympathetic nervous system activation, Tummalapalli says.
It’s not just moments of intense stress — like Tako Tsubo syndrome, which refers to the sudden onset of heart attack or heart-failure symptoms due to the sudden deterioration of heart function after a person hears unexpected tragic news — that are detrimental to heart health, but prolonged minor stressors, too.
Stress is a leading factor in chest pain, strokes, elevated blood pressure and heart attacks. If left unattended, warns Tummalapalli, it can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like smoking, poor food choices and a sedentary lifestyle.
“Stress also impairs our ability to fight infection, impairs our cognitive abilities — like thinking clearly and remembering accurately — and increases inflammatory markers in the body,” says Catherine M. Stoney, program director for the Division of Prevention and Population Sciences at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md.
And though, according to Stoney, eliminating stress isn’t always a realistic goal, learning to live and cope with it is the best possible outlook. It’s all about finding what works for you.
Here are some suggestions for ways to reduce stress in everyday life:
Exercise. It almost goes without saying in this day and age — exercise is a great way to both relax and stay in shape.
“This might be the single most important thing you can do to improve your health,” Tummalapalli says.
Meditation and yoga. Tummalapalli and Stoney both recommend these soothing activities as a way to center oneself and learn proper deep-breathing techniques, which are helpful in times of panic.
Find a hobby. “Tennis, dance, photography — whatever you like!” Tummalapalli says.
Take a time out. Similar to a hobby, this involves taking some time out of every day to spend quality time with yourself.
“Read, watch a movie, take a relaxing bath or choose another enjoyable activity that provides a quiet time apart from your daily activities,” says Stoney, who also advises turning off electronic devices to truly “commit to the notion that time for yourself is as important as time for work.”
Socialize and volunteer. “Humans are social animals,” says Tummalapalli, who notes the importance of being selective about who you choose to interact with: “Socialize with people you genuinely enjoy spending time with.”
Keep yourself surrounded by people who love and support you, and “ask for help when you need it,” Stoney says.
Lindsay Romain writes for CTW Features