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We've all heard the saying "you are what you eat." But could we soon be adding "you are what you feel" to the refrain? While a single stressful week at the office probably isn't going to inflict any lasting damage, if you feel overwhelmed and distressed more often than not, it's time for a heart-healthy primer on coping. Self-assurance in the face of life's daily challenges, staying upbeat when we fail and taking care of our needs can help keep us happy and our hearts ticking.
Are You Stressing Your Heart?
We know that chronic stress can increase heart rate, blood pressure and inflammation — all of which are associated with the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Some researchers now also suspect that stress may even affect our cholesterol levels. According to a recent study, people who react the most severely to stressful situations are three times more likely to have high LDL than people who stay the most serene. While stress may not be the most important contributor to unhealthy cholesterol levels, the study's author says, it may contribute to the problem.
Don't Let Stress Drag You Down
Stress can be like that shady friend your mother always tried to keep you away from. When it's constantly hanging around, taking care of your needs can fall to the bottom of your to-do list, and your bad habits can take over. Maybe you take comfort in a box of doughnuts, or skip your walk to log an extra hour at work. Perhaps you think a cigarette will calm jittery nerves or a few glasses of wine will take the edge off a rough day. Whatever your vice, negative emotions can cultivate unhealthy coping methods and lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. Researchers say these habits are a major reason why psychological distress is a risk factor for heart disease. That's why dealing with your emotions and adopting healthier habits are the most effective ways to keep your blood pressure down and your arteries in the clear.
Get out for a Walk
You already know that working out is good for the heart. It can boost HDL — the good cholesterol — and lower your triglycerides. Research has shown that exercise can be as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as antidepressants. It can also help build self-esteem, which in turn helps people cope in stressful situations. As if that weren't enough, regular physical activity can help reduce the effects of stress on the body and may be one of the best remedies for anxiety. While 30 minutes of moderate exercise (such as a brisk walk) five days a week or more is your goal, don't let that deter you. Even a 10-minute burst of vigorous exercise, like jumping rope, can give your mood a boost. Enlist a friend to walk with you at lunch, or, if you'd rather go solo, put on some happy tunes to get you moving.
Think Happy Thoughts
Each day, make a point to think of three good things that happened, such as “the sun came out,” “my boss thanked me” and “I went to the gym.” While writing in a gratitude journal can be difficult for you at first if you're really stressed out or down, Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California and author of The How of Happiness, advises that these little mood boosts, even though they seem trivial, really add up to increased happiness in the long term. Training yourself to see the positive really does work: Researchers tested this simple activity on severely depressed patients, and after 15 days, the subjects' moods improved significantly.
Pat Yourself on the Back
Give yourself some credit. Well, not just some. A lot of it. Life is full of challenges, and it's easy to criticize yourself when things don't turn out the way you might have liked. Thinking about all of the things we did wrong does not give us insight. “All it gives us is a distorted, pessimistic view of our lives,” Lyubomirsky says. How do you keep the major and minor setbacks from plunging you into a pit of despair? Believe it or not: distraction. Do things that bring you pleasure and that have the power to engross you.
"A lot of coping has to do with what your goal is," says Robert Leahy, PhD, author of The Worry Cure. Demand the impossible of yourself, he continues, and you will feel stressed. Focus on what you can control; you'll feel less stress. One way to create a feeling of positive control: Make a menu of rewarding actions for yourself. Whenever you feel yourself falling into negative thinking, Leahy suggests, pick something from your list and do it.
Here are a few suggestions to get you going. Make your own menu and draw from it whenever you need a boost.
- Spend time with friends. Social support can improve mood and help reduce the effects of stress on the heart.
- Go to a comedy show. Research shows that laughter can boost HDL levels and lower inflammation associated with cardiovascular disease.
- Do good. Volunteering can give people an enormous sense of purpose. Research shows it can also reduce depression in heart patients.
Try This! Give yourself bragging rights. Spend 10 minutes writing a list of all the great things about yourself. Don't be modest. Remember all the compliments people have given you in the past and write those down too. Whenever you feel the urge to criticize yourself, look at your list instead. —Jill Provost