From the Heart and Stroke Foundation

It's difficult to avoid having at least a few stressful moments throughout your week. Mishaps and unexpected changes are just part of life, although sometimes it might feel an entire week has been nonstop frustrations. But whether you have an occasional bout of stress or if it seems to creep into your life almost every day, there are things you can do to help cut those negative feelings and reduce the strain it puts on your heart. "There's always going to be stress in life," says Foundation-funded psychiatrist Dr. Brian Baker. "But if it starts to get to you, then you have to have techniques to deal with it."

Ongoing stress can be hard on the heart and the rest of the body, and while the reasons aren't fully understood, researchers have an idea of what might be contributing to the problem. "Our bodies are wired to have a stress response," says Dr. Sheldon Tobe, Foundation-funded researcher and executive for the Canadian Hypertension Education Program. "We speculate that stress activates parts of the brain that turn on defense mechanisms, better known as the fight or flight response, which makes our heart rate and blood pressure rise. Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, is cranked out and it can cause our bodies to retain salt, have increased blood pressure and make us more prone to diabetes and more likely to develop problems with immunity."

So if you want to start taking control of all those harmful physical reactions and save your heart, read on to learn some helpful stress-busting techniques.

Build your own toolkit

A stress diary
Keeping a record of those stressful moments can help you figure out what is so upsetting about a particular situation, so you can come up with a solution that fits. So, keep a small notebook somewhere private (a purse, locked drawer) and when you get flustered, take it out and record:

  • Date and time
  • A description of the stressful event
  • A description of your mood and how happy you feel on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being your happiest ever)
  • How stressed you feel on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most stressed ever)
  • Your first physical sign of stress (stiff neck, upset stomach, racing pulse, lump in throat, etc)

Later, reflect on what you think the fundamental cause was and how well you think you handled the situation. Once you have kept your stress diary for a while, go back and list all your major causes of stress. This way you can be prepared for those things most likely to set you off and then you can be prepared to either dismiss the stressful event or find ways of coping with it.

A handy hobby
Distracting yourself with a beloved hobby is another good way to fend off stress. Crossword puzzles, sudoku, word jumbles, knitting, crocheting, reading – these are all great stress busters. If you find it helps to unwind and distract you, keep your puzzle, a small crochet project or book in a tote bag so you can pull it out when you need a personal moment.

Your favourite music
"Music can be quite relaxing," says Dr. Baker. The key is to choose pieces that won't exaggerate any feelings of anger, anxiety or sadness. You want to stick to songs that are calming or that are upbeat and happy. Make sure to choose songs that you personally identify with. Keep them on your cellphone, a personal MP3 player or on a mixed CD you can pop into the CD player in your car, home or work computer.

Running shoes
"Physical activity is a great way to bust stress. Anything between 10 and 30 minutes could help you get relief from that heightened stress response," Dr. Baker says. Keeping a pair of running shoes nearby will help you prepare for times when you might want to go for a short walk or jog to cool down your over-stimulated mind.

Dr. Baker says there are many different meditation techniques you can try that could help get stress under control and the key is finding one that works for you. However, slow, deep breathing and concentration are fundamental, no matter which you use. "The principle of relaxation is learning how to focus on something and de-focus on everything else. Focus on one thing and try to shut your mind down for other things," Dr. Baker says. "Deep, controlled abdominal breathing is highly recommended. Pull the breath into the chest and then into your belly. Then breath out, letting your abdominal muscles down. If you're nervous, it can settle you down quite nicely." He says that many people benefit from learning from an expert first and practicing this breathing at home. He also says that yoga, Pilates and tai chi also focus on this controlled, abdominal breathing and can be a good alternative for some people who find meditation difficult.

Try this 3-minute relaxation moment

  1. Find a private room and close the door – at work or at home – and sit in a chair.
  2. Either close your eyes or gaze down at the floor. Relax your shoulders and your jaw.
  3. Gently place your hands on your belly and bring your breath all the way down so that your hands lift slightly. Breathe out just as slowly.
  4. Continue breathing slowly and deeply for about three minutes.
  5. Allow your thoughts to come and go – don't try to control them, just witness them without judgment.
  6. Slowly come out of your slow, deep breathing by opening your eyes or lifting your gaze.
  7. Stand up and stretch your arms up over your head and shake your arms and legs.
  8. Now you're ready to get back to work – at your job, being a parent or whatever!

Make it personal
When you are designing your stress relief kit, think about what works for you. If you're not sure, then keep an open mind about trying new techniques. "What you should avoid is doing unhealthy things like drinking a lot of coffee, smoking, and eating junk food. This will tend to escalate stress and related problems," says Dr. Baker. "But otherwise, anything that works for you, do it."

If you find that you are chronically stressed, speak to your healthcare provider, your family and friends or a spiritual counselor for help.

Posted: April 1, 2009

Heart and Stroke Foundation


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