The body is an amazing mechanism! So many things happen automatically in our bodies without us ever having to give it a thought. We breathe, our hearts pump, our brain is constantly sorting and processing information…it operates on autopilot!
It’s the same when we are stressed. The body responds automatically. Any time you feel threatened in any way, the body releases stress hormones that give you the energy to get to safety… when there is a real emergency. But your brain can’t tell the difference between a real emergency, like a tiger chasing you, and everyday stressors like being angry after fight with your significant other, fretting about paying the mortgage, worrying about a loved one with an illness or feelings of loss after getting your heart broken.
The very hormones that are meant to help us survive in the moment, over time, can become toxic to all systems in the body causing serious illness and diseases. We’ve all experienced that little rush or palpitation when something scares us, we get angry at someone, we feel worried or afraid. That feeling is the body responding to the stress hormones flowing through the blood stream. Adrenalin and cortisol slow digestion, make us breathe faster, make us tense and sweaty and increase our heart rate and blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association more 100 million adults in the United States have high blood pressure, which increases their risk for a stroke, heart attack and other cardiac events.
A 2014 study at the University of Pittsburg found that persistent negative emotions (fear, worry, sadness, anger) increased the risk for atherosclerosis (we used to call this hardening of the arteries) and heart disease by raising the levels of inflammatory-causing chemicals in the body (cortisol). This study is important because it reaffirms having a health heart goes beyond lifestyle choices like diet, exercise and being a non-smoker.
So is there anything we can do to protect our hearts? Absolutely! Instead of stuffing our emotions, we can decrease the stress response and lower cortisol levels in the body by taking these steps…
The first step is acknowledging the emotions we feel. Once we name the emotion, it takes away the power it has over us.
The second step is becoming aware of where we are feeling that emotion in the body. I feel that anger in my heart…it’s pounding. I feel that worry in my neck…it’s tense. I feel that hurt in my stomach… it’s full of knots. These warning signs are different for everyone, but they are the body’s way of telling us to stop running on autopilot and pay attention.
The third step is identifying what is making us the way we’re feeling. Once we can identify and acknowledge the source, we can create a plan to handle that particular stressor and address the situation. So this month, when you’re handing out Valentines and celebrating affairs of the heart, take a moment and pay attention to your own.
About the Authors: Deb Timmerman, RN, HTP, DAIS and Beth Tuttle, EFT are stress educators who share stress management skills for the life span. Their mission: Sharing stress management tools that build resilient kids, create successful families and thriving communities.