Can better stress management improve your health?
Can better stress management jump start weight loss for those struggling to lose weight?
It did for my patient Christina. Here’s her story.
Christina was 52 when I met her and had been suffering with chest pain and palpitations for several years. She had seen multiple physicians and undergone extensive heart testing, but no cause of her symptoms could be found.
Christina was particularly upset when one doctor said her problems were all in her head.
To make matters worse, Christina had put on 25 pounds and her waist size had increased 4 inches in the last 2 years. She had always been in good shape and hated the increased weight and belly size but couldn’t lose it. She had tried several diets and nothing was working for her.
Overall, Christina was miserable and described her stress level as “through the roof.” Things were so bad that Christina wondered if life was worth living anymore.
I listened to her story, reviewed her test results and realized the problem wasn’t her heart.
So I talked with her about stress.
As a cardiologist, one of the more common questions I get from my patients with chest pain or palpitations is, “Do you think it could be stress?”
And the answer is typically “It’s possible.”
Doctors have long recognized that stress impacts health and this is particularly true in cardiology. There is a strong, although poorly understood, connection between the heart and the brain.
One of the of the most dramatic examples of this connection is a type of heart attack called “broken heart syndrome” or “takotsubo” (because the heart looks like a takotsubo or Japanese octopus pot during an attack).
The trigger for this fascinating disease is typically an acute stress such as bad news, severe pain or strong emotions. Broken heart syndrome has occurred because of lightning strikes, arguments, gambling loses and even surprise birthday parties!
People with broken heart syndrome have symptoms similar to a typical heart attack and their heart function is often severely impaired even though the heart arteries are normal. It is a potentially lethal problem that may require aggressive lifesaving therapy.
If the person survives (hopefully), the heart function returns to normal in days to weeks.
While broken heart syndrome is caused by a sudden stressful event, the effect of chronic stress on health is less dramatic but no less important. Chronic stress is associated with heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity and several other health issues including premature death.
While the connection between stress and disease is well recognized, the question of “how” stress compromises health has not been fully answered. However, research is beginning to provide clues. In one study, subjects first underwent an imaging study that measured brain activity and then were followed over time.
The researchers were particularly interested in the brain activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain highly active in those under stress. Interestingly, those who had increased amygdala activity (high stress) had more inflammation in their blood vessels (a potent driver of atherosclerosis or artery plaque buildup) and, subsequently, more heart attacks and strokes.
These results suggest that high stress may cause heart attacks and strokes by increasing the inflammation in the blood vessels.
Christina wasn’t excited about my idea of stress being part of her symptoms and weight issues. At first she thought I was saying her symptoms weren’t real. I explained that I simply wanted to take advantage of all possible treatments that could help her. Ultimately, she agreed to visit with a colleague of mine trained in stress-management techniques.
A few months later, I got a message from Christina thanking me for saving her life! She had been practicing her new stress-management skills, and her chest pain and palpitations were almost gone. Even better, she had found renewed optimism for life and was thrilled to have lost weight.
Christina’s experience was a revelation to me. I knew stress was important to health, but she was the first patient who showed me the power of stress management. Since then, I talk to patients regularly about stress, how it can affect health and what they can do about it.
If your life is “high stress” and you’re struggling to improve your health or lose weight, don’t miss an opportunity to use a stress-management strategy. Just a few minutes a day spent on stress management can improve the quality of your life and be the key step to achieve your health and weight loss goals.
To help you get started, here are five effective stress-management techniques that have worked for my patients.
1. Move your body every day
Many patients tell me the mental benefits from exercise are greater for them than the physical benefits. Several studies have proven the effectiveness of physical activity as a treatment for anxiety and depression. If you are struggling with stress but aren’t active, do yourself a favor and discover the magic of regular daily activity. Yoga is a great activity for stress management but truly, any activity helps.
2. Get enough sleep
Have you ever had an overwhelming problem that became more manageable after a good night’s sleep? I think we all have. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you’re not sleeping well, you won’t feel well. Our society devalues the importance of sleep, but the cliché really is true. Things ARE better after a good night’s sleep.
3. Practice gratitude
It’s human nature to spend most of our time thinking about our problems and how to solve them. While that strategy helps us navigate life’s difficulties, it can also lead us to forget about our blessings. Even something as simple as spending sixty seconds first thing in the morning thinking about what you are grateful for can set the tone for the day and be life-altering.
I had my doubts, but I’m a believer now. Breathing is a simple and effective stress-management strategy. I often refer people for biofeedback training to learn how to do it well. Additionally, some of my patients have found breathing-technique smartphone apps to be effective.
In our over-packed, never-have-enough-time world, it can be challenging to find the time to foster and grow connections with others. But don’t cheat yourself out of this. Besides being enjoyable, social connectedness is an effective way to manage stress and improve the quality and length of life.
These are just a few techniques that work. If you’re looking for more information on stress management, I highly recommend checking out the great work of Dr. Amit Sood at stressfree.org.
Stress may be unavoidable, but the negative effect on your health is not.
And the beat goes on,
R. Todd Hurst, MD, FACC, FASE