I’m 8 weeks out from my own quadruple bypass surgery at age 64, and I’ve had to give some serious thought about the role of chronic stress and anxiety.
My cardiovascular crisis was mystifying to my friends and family, but no one was more astonished than I was. I never smoked. I’d only gone up a notch or two on my belt since college. My parents both lived into ripe old age. I’ve eaten reasonably carefully and one way or another, exercised conscientiously my entire adult life. My moderately high HDL levels were seemingly held in check by modest doses of a statin. Nothing to see here, right?
However, the factor usually listed last on the “coronary disease risk” list is the one that I wondered about most—stress. I inherited my mother’s anxiety-driven personality, which my precarious career as a freelance illustrator took to new heights. Financial insecurity was the overriding backdrop of my life for decades, and the paralyzing worry it created seeped into every corner of my personal and professional life.
Was this the hidden risk that led to the 9-inch scar in the middle of my chest?
The Case Against Stress
It’s not news that ongoing negative emotions can have adverse effects on your health. However, recent research points to new evidence that offers a far more nuanced understanding of how and why that’s the case.
1. People with persistent stress and worry often have insomnia, itself a risk factor for a wide variety of health problems, including cardiovascular issues.
2. Those suffering from long-standing stress not surprisingly are more prone to sooth their distress with unhealthy lifestyle choices—smoking, drinking, drug abuse, binge eating, etc.
3. The body reacts to stress by producing cortisol and a variety of other hormones. They’re useful in energizing the body to meet temporary stressful challenges by bringing on a higher state of mental and physical acuity. However, these same chemicals promote weight gain, high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, as well as depression and mental illness if they’re continuously circulating in the bloodstream.
The Anti-Stress Toolbox
While there are undeniably very complicated real-life situations that can create persistent stress, we fortunately have a wide assortment of techniques and strategies that can significantly alter our responses to those situations.
1. Physical activity is a powerful antidote to the harmful effects of cortisol and related hormones. Aerobic activity channels the body’s “flight or fight” response in positive ways, and releases mind-soothing endorphins that promote well-being and increase self-confidence.
2. Mindfulness and meditation techniques have gained both medical and popular acceptance in recent years, shedding the new-agey stigma of the past. Authors like Jon Kabat-Zinn have demystified these practices, and they are now widely available in books and seminars, at hospitals and health centers, and online. These disciplines can be incorporated into the busiest schedules, requiring only a few minutes in an out-of-the way corner of your home or office.
3. Drug therapy and psychological counseling continue to be powerful tools in combating depression and anxiety brought on by continued stress. Most effective when used together, they can substantially change the way we experience stressors that provoke harmful psychological and physiological responses.
4. Social connectedness can have significant effects in reducing stress levels by encouraging us to get perspective on our own lives, be of service to others, and to get out of “our own heads.” Get involved with organizations, engage in meaningful group activities, or simply reach out to friends and family (FYI, social media is one way to connect, but it doesn’t compare to face-to-face interactions).
5. If laughter isn’t the best medicine, it’s right up there. Laughing reduces stress, shifts our perspective away from ourselves, and replaces distressing emotions with more positive ones. Do what works for you—go online to see news bloopers and cat fails, watch shows and movies that tickle you, read books that make you laugh, or head out to a comedy club. A good yuk is your best friend.
6. Listen to music you love. Music is a special language that touches us on levels that words can’t approach. Accessing music that appeals to you is easier than ever thanks to technology, and can be incredibly useful in resetting your frame of mind.
Over recent years, my own anti-stress mix has included deep breathing techniques, drug therapy, and counseling, listening to my favorite music, and yes, ending each day with my guilty pleasure, old America’s Funniest Home Video compilations on YouTube. Your choices may be entirely different.
The most crucial step you can make is to take chronic stress and anxiety seriously. I only have to look down at my chest to know how indispensable that is.