The relationship between heart health and stress is complex and multifaceted. While some stress is helpful (think about the boost stress gives us to meet deadlines or accomplish tasks) stress that continues unabated can have a significant impact our cardiovascular health, contributing to the development and progression of heart-related conditions.
When we trigger a stress response, that ‘fight or flight’ reaction we are familiar with, we release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, boosting our heart rate and blood pressure, which strain our cardiovascular systems. Chronic stress has been connected to inflammation, which is a factor in the development of atherosclerosis, what we know colloquially as hardening of the arteries. When we are under stress, our sleep can be disrupted, and our otherwise healthy habits around nutrition, alcohol use and physical activity may deteriorate.
What is the antidote to ‘fight or flight’? It is ‘rest and digest’, or what Dr. Herbert Benson called the Relaxation Response. Benson introduced this term in his 1975 book The Relaxation Response (William Morrow and Co., Revised 2019 HarperCollins). He described the scientific benefits of relaxation, explaining that regular practice of the Relaxation Response can be an effective treatment – and can contribute to the prevention – of a wide range of stress-related disorders, including cardiovascular disease.
However, when we are stressed, the last thing we want to consider is adding another obligation to a long list of to-dos. What if it took only a few minutes to find your way to a measure of stress relief? Try one or all of these helpful techniques for quick-fix stress reduction. Before you begin, measure your stress level on a 1-10 scale, where 10 represents your maximum stress level. And measure your stress level again after you experiment with these options.
5 Minute Meditation Practice
Seated in a chair, relaxed yet upright (support back with pillow if needed)
Both feet flat on floor
Eyes closed; distractions/noise reduced as much as possible
Inhale and exhale normally
Focus on the sensation of sitting - what do you notice as you sit? What does sitting feel like?
If you get distracted, return your thought process to the sensation of sitting
5 minutes (use a timer) - AM and PM
Inhale through the nose four counts - feel the act of breathing widen your rib cage
Hold the breath four counts
Exhale through the mouth four counts - feel the act of exhaling narrow your rib cage
Hold the exhale four counts
Repeat for four cycles
Inhale through the nose five counts - feel the act of breathing widen your rib cage
Exhale through the mouth five counts - feel the act of exhaling narrow your rib cage
Notice the still point – that moment between the inhale and the exhale
Repeat for five cycles
You can also choose one of these approaches and create a regular (daily) practice and see how you can manage the ‘fight or flight’ response. How will you know your choice is supporting you around stress? Again, by measuring your stress level before and after your practice.