For most of us, stress is a part of our daily lives. It could be the stress of being stuck in traffic or being late for an important meeting. Or maybe the stress is deeper than that. Maybe it’s the stress of making ends meet financially or the stress of taking care of a sick loved one.
No matter where your stress comes from, it can impact your health in negative ways if it’s not managed. Research suggests that stress can be a risk factor for heart disease. Learning how stress impacts your body and how to reduce its effects is important for maintaining a healthy heart and body.
We can’t necessarily control what stress comes into our lives, but we can incorporate healthy ways to react to it and manage its impact.
What Impact Does Stress Have on My Health?
In a stressful situation, your body releases a flood of chemicals, including adrenaline, to prepare your body for action. Temporarily, your muscles tense, your breathing speeds up, your heart rate increases and your blood pressure rises. This is known as our “fight or flight” response. If you’re about to be attacked by a bear, this would be helpful since your body would be ready to act. But the problem is that your body reacts the same way to all types of stress, even when you’re not in danger. Over time, these stress-related reactions can impact your body in negative ways and increase your risk for health problems.
Some of those health problems include:
Learning how stress impacts your body and how to reduce its effects is important for maintaining a healthy heart and body.
- Reduced blood flow to the heart
- Increased inflammation in your body
- Raised blood pressure
- An irregular heart rate
- Increased cholesterol levels
Reactions to stress can increase your risk for heart disease. In addition, stress can impact your heart indirectly through your coping methods. Stress can lead us to make unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as drinking, smoking, overeating and more.
How Can I Manage My Stress Better?
If we can’t eliminate all sources of stress from our daily lives, it’s important to try to find healthy ways to deal with it. Here are some suggestions:
- Identify the sources of your stress. Think about what’s causing your stress and how you can manage it better. If it’s an overbearing and critical boss, can you take a 15-minute walk at lunch to cool off and relax? If you’re overwhelmed by the pace of the day, can you get up a few minutes earlier each day so that you have a few moments of quiet to yourself? If it’s something more serious, such as a devastating loss or a divorce, consider seeking professional help to get some advice on how to cope.
- Stay positive. Having a good outlook can help you minimize the impact stressful situations may have. Laughter and positive thinking have been found to lower levels of stress hormones, reduce inflammation in the arteries and lower your cholesterol.
- Practice mindfulness and meditation. Try out a breathing exercise to start. Deep breaths can calm us down, relax our bodies, and reduce our blood pressure and anxiety levels. For some ideas on how to incorporate meditation into your day, check out Mindfulness and Meditation: An Easy Guide for Getting Started.
- Stay active. When you’re active, your body releases certain chemicals, which help to improve your mood, lower your blood pressure and strengthen your heart muscle.
- Unplug. With our constant use of technology, stress can follow us everywhere we go — even into bed. Give yourself a chance to escape at least once every day. Put the phone away, turn off the news and try to detox from the world around you. Even if it’s 10 minutes, it can give your mind the break it needs.
- Find a relaxation technique that works for you. It might be a warm bath, a funny TV show, exercise, yoga or something entirely different. Whatever it is, try to make sure it’s a healthy way to reduce the stress you’re feeling.
- Get enough sleep. When we are short on sleep, stress can feel 100 times worse. We have a harder time dealing with it, we have less patience and we’re more likely to get angry. If stress is impacting your ability to sleep, check out Sleep Better: Understanding Sleep Disorders That Affect Veterans.
- Spend time with friends or family. Sometimes we need to reach out to our support network to get us through a tough time. Making time to check in with friends and connect with others can take our minds off the other things that are bothering us.
- Get support. Sometimes the stress Veterans face relates to something from your time in the military. Maybe it’s a traumatic event you haven’t forgotten, an injury you’re trying to cope with or something else. You may need help figuring out if this stress is manageable on your own or if it’s a sign of something more, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. Talk to your health care provider and connect with the resources designed to help you. You may find counseling, a support group or another type of therapy helpful for managing your stress.
What Resources Are Available to Help?
- Make the Connection offers personal stories from other Veterans who have dealt with stress and anxiety. Learn more about self-help tools and resources to help you better manage life’s challenges.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shares information about the connection between your heart health and your mental health, including the impact of chronic stress and PTSD.
- MedlinePlus details the ways stress impacts your health and has some more suggestions about ways to manage it.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs offers mental health resources designed to get you the support you deserve. If your stress is more than you can handle, reach out.
- TriWest Behavioral Health for Veterans is there when you need help. Search for information on a wide range of topics and find tools to help you recognize signs of PTSD, anxiety disorders and more.
Stress isn’t just something we have to learn to accept. Knowing its potential to impact our hearts and health, it’s important to actively find ways to manage its effects.