April is Stress Awareness Month, so I want to take this opportunity to share some eye-opening facts about the affects of stress on health. Our sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for the stress response that most of us know as “fight or flight” certainly plays a role in protecting us from true dangers. It’s this system of the body that makes it possible for us to either flee from or fight against that which presents harm – such as a charging bear. Unfortunately, we live in an environment (and culture of “busy” as discussed in last week’s post) that keeps us in a nearly constant state of stress. The body responds in the same way to a deadline that we are anxious about achieving as to that charging bear that was more likely of a threat to our ancestors.
The stress hormone, cortisol, is increased when we move from our parasympathetic nervous system to the sympathetic nervous system. When we are faced with stress, our body’s reaction is to prepare us to either run or fight. Digestion stops because that energy is needed elsewhere (approx. 80% of our energy is dedicated to digestion). Our pulse quickens, our breath becomes shallower, and our muscles tense. As a result, stress has been documented as a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, headaches, chronic pain, gastro-intestinal distress and diseases, sleep disturbances, infections, diabetes, accidents and immune diseases.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death for all Americans (men and women), and is 80% preventable through lifestyle changes. Stress affects all the major modifiable risk factors for heart disease. In addition to the automatic responses that are triggered in the body, stress is a major factor in overeating, eating unhealthy “comfort” foods, smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, depression, social isolation and hostility or anger. Most of these habits are contributing factors to risk of heart disease.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Meditation is the exact opposite of stress, and has been proven to reduce the health affects of stress. Various studies have shown that meditation can lower blood pressure and heart rate, and reduce plaque production in arteries. Meditation is used for smoking cessation, pain management, anger and anxiety management, as well as weight loss. There are several types and ways to meditate, and it can be done on your own anywhere. Meditation doesn’t have to be an hour a day. A step as simple as taking a deep breath before reacting when faced with a stress-inducing situation can help combat the stress response and return the body to a natural state (parasympathetic nervous system).
Some options to try are a breath meditation where you sit quietly and bring your attention to your inhale and exhale. You can focus on lengthening your inhale and exhale and count your breaths up to 10, then start over again at 1. If your mind wanders, simply let the thought pass without assigning judgment and bring your focus back to counting your breath. Another form of meditation is to close your eyes and do a body scan – this can be done lying down or sitting. You can start with bringing your mind’s eye to your toes and move through your body, focusing on one area at a time, pausing where you are holding tension and sending your breath to that area until the tension releases. Visualization and prayer (or silently repeating a mantra) are other forms of meditation. Start with just five minutes per day and take note of any improvements you find in your mood, sleep, and ability to deal with pressure and stress.