‘Tis the season – Remember to breathe

Here’s how to keep your heart happy and strike a healthy balance this holiday season

By Raquel G. Rivas

As much as we love to celebrate the holidays, too much excitement can spell trouble for those managing chronic conditions like heart disease. How can you manage travel schedules, family gatherings and the holiday rush while still protecting your health?

First, realize that holiday parties can bring both joy and stress. In stressful situations, whether it’s rushing to “get the house ready,” or facing a personal conflict with someone you haven’t seen in a while, your body’s reaction can damage your heart.

Stress makes your heart race, your muscles tense, and causes a flood of chemicals to rush into your blood stream. Stress is considered a risk factor for heart disease — much like high blood pressure. You can treat high blood pressure with medication, diet and exercise, but the best way to combat stress is through relaxation.

Just as your body reacts to stress, it also responds to relaxation. Finding harmony between these two responses can help you find a healthy balance, and keep the joy in your holidays.

Is this stress real?

“We do see an increase in heart attacks and chest pain symptoms during the holiday season,” says Mona Shah, MD, a cardiologist who is one of only two specialists in Florida certified in holistic medicine along with cardiology.  “On average, there are 33 percent more deaths from heart attacks in December through February than other times of the year.”

According to Dr. Shah, the top three dates for dates for heart attacks are December 25, December 26 and January 1.

Stress isn’t the only culprit, of course. Overindulgence, including too much eating and drinking and not enough exercise, can add to the pressures on your heart.

Cold weather also can increase your blood pressure and heart rate, and make your heart work harder.

“An important point is that people don’t go get help immediately because they are busy with family and friends,” Dr. Shah says. “Who wants to go to the hospital on Christmas?”

To relieve stress, manage expectations and enjoy a healthy holiday, follow these three simple tips:

1) Meaning: When you start to feel overwhelmed, hit the pause button and take a moment to reflect on what matters most: Being with family and friends, sharing your love and caring for one another. Remember, meaningful time together doesn’t have to be picture-perfect.

2) Breathing: Take a few minutes to do some simple breathing exercises, and let go of unrealistic expectations. Have an affirmation you can repeat, such as “I am where I need to be, and everything will work out.” Use this technique when your patience is tested, whether it’s standing in a long line or having your plans suddenly changed.

3) Staying on track: It’s fun to step out of your diet sometimes, and holidays are usually a season when people do this. If you overindulge one or two days, go back to eating clean and exercising even for a little bit on the other days. Avoid turning one or two indulgent days of eating into a week or two of gaining.

When to go to the ER

Seek urgent care or call 911 if you feel any sort of chest discomfort or pressure, arm discomfort, or jaw pain especially when moving around and engaged in an activity. Call your doctor or visit the ER if you experience shortness of breath, a fluttering sensation in your heart, or are just not feeling yourself.

“Often, I’ll see patients during the holidays who have heartburn-like symptoms,” Dr. Shah adds. “Some patients will chalk up this discomfort to poor eating habits when it’s actually a heart condition.”

Remember this: Any change in symptoms or new symptoms should prompt a phone call or a trip to the emergency room. Take care of yourself first and be diligent about your health even, and especially, during the holidays, so you can be around to enjoy the next one.


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