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When you visit your doctor’s office for a yearly check-up, it’s common for them to check your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. That’s important. But so is taking stock of your mental outlook. Unfortunately, that usually gets little, if any time, in a typical doctor’s visit.
“There isn’t a quick test to assess mental health factors that affect heart health, including stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness, but these factors are very important,” says Mimi Guarneri, MD, an integrative cardiologist in La Jolla, California, and author of 108 Pearls to Awaken Your Healing Potential (Hay House, Inc., 2017).
“For example, people who are depressed are less likely to comply with lifestyle change recommendations, less likely to eat well and less likely to exercise.” Similarly, people who are stressed may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as dipping into a carton of ice cream.
Practicing transcendental meditation may reduce systolic blood pressure by about 4 mmHg and diastolic pressure by 2 mmHg.
Your body under stress
Stress itself has direct effects in your body. “When you’re under stress 24/7 and your body is producing stress hormones such as adrenalin and noradrenaline, they can contribute to weight gain around your waist, raise blood pressure, raise cholesterol and so on,” Guarneri says. “Just about every risk factor for heart disease is impacted by stress and anxiety via your stress hormones.”
Unfortunately, some people just accept stress as a part of life that they can’t do anything about. “Stress should not be accepted,” Howard Schwartz, MD, says. “Instead, people need to learn how to reduce the damaging effects of stress in their lives.”
Learning to cope with stress and minimize its damaging effects isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. “People need to explore different options to discover what works best for them,” Schwartz says. “Someone might really benefit from a mindfulness practice, whereas someone else might benefit from going on walks or journaling. The solution may be one of these things or a combination of them.”
Breathing your way to mindfulness
You may hear a lot about mindfulness, but what exactly is it? “Mindfulness is just being present, focusing on the here and now instead of letting your mind race,” Guarneri says. “Mindfulness can be as simple as taking time out to focus on your breathing. Just learning to control your breathing when stress creeps in helps control your autonomic nervous system, which is involved in producing stress hormones.”
A popular relaxation technique is to breathe in for four seconds, hold the breath briefly and then breathe out for a count of eight seconds. “When you take time out to focus on your breathing like this, it shifts your body into a more relaxed state,” Guarneri says.
A tip that Schwartz gives patients when teaching them the breathing exercise is to focus on the sensation of air coming in and going out through their nostrils and the sensation of their belly going in and out. These actions help you focus your attention on your breathing instead of your worries.
“A mindfulness practice like breathing creates space or the ability to pause so you can become more aware of what’s triggering your stress response,” Schwartz says. “So, rather than going into automatic mode and reacting to the stressor, you can step back and choose a healthier response to it.”
Reframe how you think
“Your thoughts and words are powerful,” Guarneri says. “They affect your own well-being as well as those around you. Positive thoughts can be healing, while negative thoughts can be quite damaging. What you think about expands, because that’s where you’re putting your energy.”
When you think negative thoughts, you subject your body, mind and spirit to these negative emotions. “For example, when you have thoughts of anger or hate, your body responds as if it’s going into battle, flooding your bloodstream with stress hormones,” Guarneri explains. Not surprisingly, studies have linked pessimism with higher blood pressure.
Fortunately, optimism and positive thinking can be learned. Experts think that only about 25 percent of our optimism level is inherited. That’s less than for most personality traits. Just like people might practice free throws to improve their basketball game, you can make a habit of practicing things that lift your mood, such as keeping a gratitude journal, performing a random act of kindness or connecting with others. That gives you an arsenal of positive energy to fall back on when the going gets tough.
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