– Dr. Brian Hollett and Dr. Ari Levy
We all have days when the stress in our lives feels like it might just kill us. According to emerging research on the topic, this might actually be the case. Learning to identify “good” and “bad” stress and building habits to combat it is critical for our quality of life and our longevity.
Not only has stress been linked to anxiety and depression, digestive problems, obesity, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, but a recent study published in the British Medical Journal is among the first to establish with a high level of certainty the connection between stress and subsequent cardiovascular disease.The study, which included over 275,000 participants and spanned 27 years of follow-up, determined that stress related disorders are associated with the following effects:
- 40% increased risk of early onset (before 50 years of age) cardiovascular disease
- 65% increased lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease
- 700% increased rate of heart failure in the first year of extreme stress
- 12% increased risk of cardiac arrhythmia
- 102% increased risk for blood clot or pulmonary embolus
This is a very big problem for us because according to the results of the Gallup 2019 Global Emotions Report, Americans are the most stressed people in the world. In 2018, the U.S. tied statistically with Greece, which has led the world on the stress scales every year since 2012, surpassing several other nations plagued by war, civil unrest, and economic collapse. The results of this report are deeply concerning from a medical perspective.
To be clear, not all stress is bad. There are three kinds of stress: toxic, tolerable and positive stress. Positive and tolerable stress, such as buying a home or losing a job, is a normal part of life and helps us learn and grow. Toxic or chronic stress, such as prolonged physical or emotional abuse, is what makes us sick. In light of the deleterious effects of stress on our health and these new findings on the link between disordered stress and cardiovascular disease, it is essential that we acknowledge and respond to our levels of chronic stress.
At a young age, we develop strategies for metabolizing stress and these strategies, whether good or bad, become our habits. As we grow older, become more independent, and take on new responsibilities (and dependents), stress increases, and so it is important to revisit our habitual responses to stress, evaluate their effectiveness and health consequences, and develop new habits to help us respond to and metabolize stress effectively, automatically, and in healthy ways. Learning to mitigate, repair and recover from stress will improve your quality of life and, in turn, your health.
The science is clear that those who learn to metabolize stress live longer, healthier lives. Adequate sleep, proper hydration, and a nutrient-dense diet together form the essential foundation the human body needs to limit and reduce stress. With this foundation, higher-level practices help to make our metabolization of stress more effective and ensure that the positive health results are more enduring.
We recommend these three higher-level practices for metabolizing stress in real-time:
1) Physical Intimacy Physical- contact with people you trust (a spouse, loved-one, family member, or even a pet) triggers the release of oxytocin from the pituitary gland, lowering the stress hormone cortisol, which leads to an all-around calmer, more relaxed, less agitated state. Hugging (someone with whom you feel safe and secure) for 20-30 seconds immediately blunts the cortisol response. It is your highest ROT (return on time) when it comes to reducing stress. Physical intimacy can lower your blood pressure, help you sleep better and strengthen your metabolism.
2) Social intimacy Sharing- aloud your stress with those who provide you support and accountability allows you to “vent” the pressures of stress within you. When venting takes place in the context of an established close relationship, your stress reduces and, as an additional benefit, stronger bonds and relational trust are built with others. Holding feelings inside compromises your health physically, mentally and emotionally. So, vent away!
3) Physical activity- Whether through a formal workout in the gym or simply an impromptu bit of cardiovascular exercise for a few minutes, the act of moving your body at a high pace triggers mood-elevating dopamine and the release of endorphins in your body which, in turn, causes your stress levels to plummet. The stress-reducing benefits of exercise can last for several hours post-exercise. Even small doses of activity (far smaller than we typically think of in terms of a workout) can profoundly reduce your stress levels.
The next time you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, use these tools to metabolize and reduce your stress. Create a strategy, form a habit, and don’t make stress another “stress“ in your life. If for no other reason, do it for yourself and do it for your heart.