Monday Medical: Stress can affect your heart health

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Most Americans have accepted that everyday stress is part of modern living. Increasing job and financial pressures, relationship problems and never having enough time are just a few of the stressors each of us faces daily.

The body reacts to stressful situations by releasing chemicals that produce a number of physical effects, such as an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. Long-term stress can take a serious toll. It suppresses immune system activity and can lead to insomnia, anxiety, high blood pressure and depression.

There is mounting evidence that chronic stress or repeated episodes of acute stress also can lead to cardiovascular disease, including atherosclerosis.

What is stress? Stress is the perception of a threat to one's physical or psychological wellbeing - and the perception that one is unable to cope with that threat.

People respond in different ways to events and situations. One person may find an event joyful and gratifying, but another may find the same event miserable and frustrating. What stresses you one day may go unnoticed the next. Stressors can be minor hassles, major life changes or a combination of both.

Being able to identify the unique stressors in your life is the start to managing stress effectively. Your body gives you warning signals that something is wrong and that you need to slow down.

These physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral warning signs should not be ignored. If you continue to be stressed and you do not give your body a break, you likely are to develop health problems.

Examples of physical stress warning signals are headaches, back pain, restlessness, ringing in the ears and sleep difficulties. Behavioral symptoms can be compulsive gum chewing, increased smoking, attitudes critical of others, grinding of teeth at night, overuse of alcohol or drugs and inability to get things done.

Emotional symptoms can include crying, nervousness and anxiety, boredom, anger, loneliness or feeling powerless to change things. Cognitive symptoms may be trouble thinking clearly, memory loss, the inability to make decisions, constant worry or loss of sense of humor.

Understanding negative coping patterns and replacing these with more positive measures for dealing with stress is critical to your long-term health. What can you begin doing today to control or alter your stress responses?

Take deep breaths throughout the day. With each long, slow exhalation, you should feel more relaxed.

Relax every day. Listen to music that lifts your mood or calms you. Learn Tai Chi, Yoga or meditation techniques. Find comfort in prayer or contemplation. Connect to nature. Learn progressive muscle relaxation or biofeedback techniques.

Exercise. Move your body every day. Simply walking briskly can have a positive effect on your mood and heath.

Manage your lifestyle. Create realistic goals for yourself. Avoid struggling to do more than is possible. Become aware of your "self-talk;" is it negative or positive? Avoid perfectionism.

Eat a healthy diet. Eat regular, planned meals in a relaxed environment. Eat a wide variety of healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables. Limit consumption of salt and sugar. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.

Avoid or minimize the use of stimulants. We often turn to stimulants to help keep us going in times of stress, but common stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine actually work against you in coping with stress.

Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation just adds to your feelings of stress. Inadequate sleep, even for a few nights, takes a physical toll on the body, leaving us prone to health problems.

Victoria L. Strohmeyer, RYT, MBA, is a Steamboat Springs psychotherapist and professional yoga instructor.

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