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What is Stress

Stress has become the number one malady of our time. The constant pressure associated with living in a fast-paced world has created an environment where nearly everyone feels the effects of stress.

Stress is a term normally used to describe the wear and tear the body experiences in reaction to everyday tensions and pressures. Change, illness, injury or career and lifestyle changes, are common causes of stress, however, it’s the effects of stress, like pressure and tension, that we feel in response to the little everyday hassles—like rush hour traffic, waiting in line, and too many e-mails, that do the most damage.

Stress is the body and mind’s response to any pressure that disrupts its normal balance. It occurs when our perception of events doesn’t meet our expectations and we are unable to manage our reaction. As a response, stress expresses itself as resistance, tension, strain or frustration that throws off our physiological and psychological equilibrium, keeping us out of sync. If our equilibrium is disturbed for long, the stress can become disabling and create numerous health problems.

The Health Effects of Stress

The effects of stress in people are seen physically, mentally and emotionally. According to the American Institute of Stress, up to 90% of all health problems we experience are related to stress. Too much stress can contribute to and agitate many health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, depression and sleep disorders.

Additional studies confirm the debilitating effects of stress on our health:

Three 10-year studies concluded that emotional stress was more predictive of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease than smoking. People who were ineffectively managing stress had a 40% higher death rate than non-stressed individuals.

A Harvard Medical School study of 1,623 heart attack survivors found that when subjects got angry during emotional conflicts, their risk of subsequent heart attacks was more than double that of those remained calm.

A 20-year study of over 1,700 older men conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that worry about social conditions, health and personal finances all significantly increased the risk of coronary disease.

Over one-half of heart disease cases are not explained by the standard risk facts, such as high cholesterol, smoking or sedentary lifestyle.

According to a Mayo Clinic study of individuals with heart disease, psychological stress was the strongest predictor of future cardiac events, such as cardiac death, cardiac arrest and heart attacks.

Misunderstood

Stress and the effects of stress are often misunderstood. We look at outside events as the source of stress, but in fact stress is really caused by our emotional reactions to events. The stress we experience in today’s world often goes unnoticed and unmanaged. Many people have simply adapted to stress in an unhealthy way, resigned to thinking its “just the way it is”. Unfortunately, lack of stress management has created a pandemic of low-grade anxiety and depression.

In a study published in The Lancet two years ago, stress and other psychological factors were found to add more to the risk of heart disease than diabetes or having a family history of heart attacks. There is also a recognised medical condition – stress cardiomyopathy – in which the heart can be damaged with no signs of plaque or clots in the blood vessels which is brought on by intense stress, with sufferers having 30 times the normal level of the stress hormone adrenaline 30 I their bloodstream. This is not good.

The Lancet study also found that heart attack patients were significantly more stressed due to work, family or money problems than the healthy controls. Such factors were estimated to account for 30 per cent of heart attack risk. High levels of hostility significantly increase your chance of dying if you are under 60 or younger. According to a study in the journal Health Psychology, it might be a better predictor of risk of heart disease than traditional factors such as high cholesterol, smoking or excess weight.

Dr Beales shows his patients how negative emotions can alter the heart’s rhythm with a device that monitors blood flow and connects to a computer with software that shows changes in heart rate variability (HRV).

“Patients can see on the screen the way their HRV changes as their emotions change,” he says. “When you have negative emotions, your HRV shows up as jagged and disorganized. But once you start focusing on positive emotions, the pattern becomes more coherent, lowering the levels of harmful inflammatory chemicals in the blood that raise the risk of heart attacks.”

Seeing these changes on a screen makes it much easier for Dr Beales to teach patients how to use emotions to influence their hearts in a positive way. Research also shows that emotions can change the composition of your blood. Being depressed makes your blood stickier and more likely to clot, doubling your chances of having a heart attack. Positive emotions make blood composition healthy. Happy people also have lower levels of the inflammatory stress hormone cortisol, which raises blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol levels.

Other studies have also found that being optimistic can protect the heart. Out of 1,000 men and women studied for nine years, those who rated themselves as ‘highly optimistic’ were 23 per cent less likely to die of heart disease, regardless of their blood pressure or whether they smoked.

Therefore, there is a very good reason why we need to adopt a positive outlook towards what we want from our lives.

How to relieve stress?

In order to effectively relieve stress it’s important to understand it’s not the external events or situations that do the harm; it’s how you respond to those stressful events. More precisely, it’s how you feel about them.

Emotions, or feelings, have a powerful impact on the human body. Emotions like frustration, insecurity and depressing feelings are stressful and inhibit optimal health and relief from stress. Positive emotions like appreciation, care, and love not only feel good, they promote health, performance and well-being.