13 gentle, natural steps to address it now.
by Mimi Guarneri, MD, FACC, board-certified in cardiovascular disease, internal medicine, and integrative holistic medicine.
When I was back in the heart catheter lab in the 1990s, I began to think of the effects of the stress response on the physical body.
I had learned in medical school that a stress response releases over 1400 chemical reactions, and an ensuing cascade of stress hormones that prompt powerful physiological changes.
Of course, stress primes the body to react to threats. It makes your heart pump faster and blood vessels constrict, sending more blood to muscles that need the strength to fight or flee. Your liver produces more sugar for that life-saving energy burst. Stress superpowers the immune system. All of these effects help our bodies escape danger, a good thing–if they stay temporary.
Unfortunately, today, too many of my patients experience stress too often and even exist in a state of chronic stress. An abundance of cortisol and adrenaline weakens the heart muscle resulting in left ventricular dysfunction.
Intense stress can even kill by stunning the heart muscle causing heart failure, a condition now termed “takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” commonly known as “broken-heart syndrome.” Yes, it’s stress that’s often behind the phenomenon where a long-married senior passes away quickly after a spouse’s death.
Stress underlies and contributes to many health challenges, including:
- Heart disease
- Digestive issues
- Sleep challenges
- Muscle aches
- Cognitive decline
- Depression, anxiety, and more mood disorders
And ours is not the only practice where patients present with chronic-stress-related disease. The American Institute of Stress tells us 77% of Americans today are experiencing physical problems caused by stress.
Consider that during one of our more severe California earthquakes–the Northridge earthquake–there were five times more cases of sudden cardiac death on the day of the quake than what occurred on average on any other non-earthquake day.
We also know that hospital admissions stemming from cardiovascular events increase significantly on days of World Cup Soccer matches. Anger, the lethal emotion prevalent on match days, has proven to more than double the risk of heart attacks.
What do integrative doctors and cardiologists do to address stress in patients AND ourselves?
In integrative medicine, when faced with a patient with a confounding health challenge, we go “upstream” and look. Often, we find chronic stress. We know that stress constricts blood vessels, deposits fat in the abdomen, and triggers arrhythmia. It leads to salt and water retention which causes higher blood pressure as well as insulin resistance and diabetes.
When we help people transform their stress response, outcomes improve. Because every clinician wants to achieve the highest positive patient outcome rate, stress reduction protocols are often part of our treatment plans.
Too many of the recommendations for stress reduction focus on defeating stress. My patients often misinterpret terms like “stress management” or “stress relief,” as a concerted effort in making anxious feelings go away altogether.
Unfortunately, the prospect of having to completely wipe out stress can make an individual feel even more stressed! It can be seen as just another thing to add to the do list, and not getting to it can add to feelings of failure and … more stress!
Changing our perception of how we view the world and learning powerful tools to transform our stress response is the key to success.
Steps to reducing chronic stress
Acknowledgment and awareness
The first step to managing stress is to acknowledge when your chronic stress has reached levels where it could be impacting your physiology and overall long-term health.
Your chronic stress has reached physiologically debilitating levels if you are experiencing one or more of the following events or symptoms:
High blood pressure, worsening diabetes, arrhythmia
Loss of focus and mental clarity
Lack of ability to sleep
Loss of self-esteem
Chronic fatigue and anger
These warning signs mean it’s time to stop and take time for yourself, reach out for professional help from your doctor or therapist, and let your loved ones know you are experiencing debilitating stress. With professional help and the support of your family, you can get a plan in place to make the life changes you need to begin enjoying your life again.
Consider some natural approaches to stress relief. These include:
Exercise – particularly in nature
Meditation and/or prayer
Appreciation and Gratitude
Don’t make assumptions
Avoid excess caffeine
Learn and practice effective communication
Cultivate more love and social support
Use natural supplements if needed