Stress and your heart

When you’re faced with an aggravating situation, your heart races, your muscles tense, and a flood of chemicals rush into your blood stream. Whether it’s a traffic jam, a personal conflict or work stress, your body’s reaction can cause damage to your heart.

Stress is now considered a risk factor for heart disease — much like high blood pressure. You can treat high blood pressure with medication, diet and exercise, but what to do about life’s unavoidable stressors?

It helps to know that your body has a response to stress, but it also has a response to relaxation. Finding harmony between these two responses can help you find a healthy balance.

Your body’s response to stress
Deep in your brain, there’s a small structure called the amygdala. This almond-shaped structure controls your stress response, emotions and memory. It kicks in during fight-or-flight moments and allows you to react quickly during life-threatening situations. It releases the chemicals you need to protect your survival. In ancient times, this would have allowed you to escape from a chasing tiger. In today’s world, it might help you avoid an accident or a break-in, enabling you to do what you must do to save yourself.

The problem is, your brain releases fight-or-flight chemicals regardless of whether or not you’re actually in a life-thhreatening situation. Your brain just knows something’s wrong and begins releasing stress hormones. If you’re under chronic stress, the chemicals continue to be released, turning your face red, making your palms start to sweat, tightening your blood vessels and eventually doing damage to your heart.

The hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol are the two main culprits. Adrenaline constricts blood vessels, raises your heart rate and makes the platelets coursing through your veins stick to each other, eventually causing blood clots.

Cortisol is a steroid that triggers inflammation, makes you gain weight around your belly, and even alters your DNA, making DNA strands look shorter and more twisted — when we actually need them to lengthen, unwind and make healthy proteins. It has been shown that years of chronic stress and yo-yoing stress hormones can produce palpitations, arrhythmia and eventually lead to heart attacks.

In rare cases, an acute surge of stress hormones can cause takotsubo cardiomiopathy or broken heart syndrome.

Your body’s relaxation response
On the flip side, your body makes and releases happy hormones like oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals dilate arteries, lower your heart rate, decrease inflammation and keep cortisol in check. You want more happy hormones to increase your relaxation response and keep things in balance.

In reality, anything we do can cause stress, the trick is how do we handle the stress. How we look at things and perceive them has a lot to do with how mush stress we feel. Think about what aspects of your life you can change. If some things can’t be changed, then how can we raise your relaxation response?

3 ways to enable a relaxation response:

  1. Meditation
  2. Find something you love to do
  3. Exercise

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