Your heart is racing, and you can barely breathe. It’s not a heart attack, you’re just stressed. While many people experience this occasionally, sustained stress is an obstacle to a healthy heart.
Medical professionals have long recognised the link between mental and physical health. That’s why it’s important to learn effective stress management that promotes a healthy heart and overall wellbeing. As a trusted healthcare provider, Mediclinic can help you achieve better heart health by providing proven stress management techniques.
The impact of stress on your heart
Chronic, ongoing stress has a clear effect on your heart health, potentially raising both cholesterol and blood pressure. When you’re stressed, your body releases high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can trigger fats called triglycerides that increase your cholesterol and raise your blood pressure over time. Worse still, we often react to stress with anger, says Harsha Maharaj, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Sandton. “This exacerbates things because anger can cause a rise in blood pressure, leading to physical symptoms like a racing heart, anxiety, and even panic attacks.”
People tend to feel the physical impact of prolonged stress more acutely as they get older and discover issues like high cholesterol and blood pressure, adds Maharaj. That’s why incorporating small, daily stress management techniques into your routine helps protect the future health of your heart.
Mindfulness and medication
“When you’re constantly on the go, you’re unable to focus on the present,” says Maharaj. This means you create more stress by worrying about what’s ahead and what happened in the past. Practising mindfulness and meditation are powerful solutions to the problem, but what are they?
- Mindfulness means immersing yourself in the present moment by focusing on your senses, i.e., sight, sound, smell, taste and touch – whatever you may be doing.
- Meditation involves doing this for an extended period. You can sit quietly and close your eyes, breathe, and focus your mind. But if this feels challenging, you can also achieve calm through activities such as running, or simply putting one foot in front of the other while remaining aware of your surroundings. “Choose whatever works for you,” advises Maharaj.
At work, you can do a two-minute mindfulness exercise to manage your anxiety and stress. “Find five things you're able to see, four things you're able to touch and feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing that you can taste,” suggests Maharaj. “It brings you back to the present when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
She also recommends Mindful, an app that tracks your anxiety level to help you understand and control it. In addition, you can set reminders to breathe and regroup.
Deep-breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery can also aid stress management, but they require practice to become habits, says Maharaj.
Deep breathing: Put your hand on your belly, take a deep breath in, hold it for as long as is comfortable and then exhale. Repeat until you feel calm and relaxed.
Progressive muscle relaxation: Focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. Lie down on your back, close your eyes and let your body relax. Then breathe in and clench your feet, and as you exhale, relax them. Repeat this process, moving up the body: calves, thighs, buttocks, hands, arms, shoulders, mouth, eyes, forehead and your whole face. Then breathe slowly and deeply for a minute or two, enjoying the sense of relaxation.
Guided imagery: Find a quiet place, sit or lie down, close your eyes and use all your senses to imagine you’re in a peaceful setting. Choose somewhere you enjoy; a beach, a garden, or wherever you would feel relaxed. As you visualise the setting, breathe deeply and slowly, giving yourself time to relax into the pleasant experience of your surroundings.
Exercise helps reduce stress and promote heart health and overall wellbeing – and even a small amount helps. When you exercise, your body releases natural stress-fighting chemicals called endorphins, which promote a sense of physical and mental wellbeing. “These endorphins stimulate other neurotransmitters in your brain,” Maharaj explains. “This boosts your serotonin level, ups your energy, reduces anxiety and helps you feel better about yourself.”
Diet. A healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet, helps reduce stress and promote a healthy heart. “An unhealthy relationship with food affects every other aspect of your life,” says Maharaj.
Sleep. Insufficient sleep is also a red flag for mental health. Apart from providing much-needed rest, sleep helps your subconscious to process the events of the day. When this doesn’t happen, anxiety and stress accumulate, eventually triggering deeper health issues.
Social support. “We all need social interaction,” says Maharaj. Even when you’re overloaded, meeting friends briefly allows you a safe space to vent and reassures you that you’re not alone.
For personalised support and guidance, find a psychologist or psychiatrist at your closest Mediclinic by visiting mediclinic.co.za
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.