How stress is damaging your heart - and how to fix it

Learning to manage our stress is key to going from surviving to thriving.

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By Tamara Oberholster

Sadly, for many South Africans, stress has become a way of life. According to a recent survey by Pharma Dynamics, stress has increased significantly among South Africans as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the respondents, 56% reported higher levels of psychological and emotional distress than before the pandemic, and 81% turned to unhealthy food, 20% to alcohol, 18% to cigarettes, 6% to smoking cannabis and 22% to antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication to help them cope with the stressors.

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Unfortunately, stress is a recognised risk factor that contributes to the development of heart disease. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, stress is as much a risk factor as cigarette smoking, diabetes, and hypertension.

And since unhealthy food, alcohol and smoking are also bad for your heart, that means that both the stress – and the ways South Africans are choosing to deal with it – are having a negative impact on our heart health.

September is Heart Awareness Month in South Africa, so we’re looking at the link between heart health and stress, and how you can protect your heart by managing your stress.

How stress damages your heart

Stress is a normal physiological response to ‘dangerous’ situations and therefore it can actually be beneficial, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. However, stress becomes unhealthy when it is excessive, when it goes on for a long time, and when it is poorly managed.

“Stress is a natural part of everyday life,” says Paula Quinsee, a coach and passionate advocate for wellbeing. “In fact, there is stress that is beneficial and motivating (often called good stress) and there is stress that causes anxiety and even health problems (i.e., bad stress).”

Constant stress may lead to high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association, which can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. And as the Pharma Dynamics study shows, when people feel stressed, they may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, whether it’s skipping exercise, smoking, not sleeping enough or turning to alcohol or drugs, for solace – putting them at increased risk of heart disease.

These unhealthy coping mechanisms mask the source of the stress, Quinsee points out, which means you’re essentially avoiding the problem instead of tackling it head on. “This not only prolongs the negative impact of the stress itself, but also the effect of the negative coping mechanisms, which we can become dependent on.”

Why stress management is even more important now

Two hundred and twenty-five people in South Africa are killed by heart disease every day, says the Heart and Stroke Foundation, but 80% of heart disease and strokes can be prevented – so managing your stress can decrease your risk of heart disease. But, given the stress of the pandemic, this is going to take some effort.

“Coping skills and tools that worked last year will perhaps not be as effective this year as reality sinks in and we experience more of the same conditions going forward – especially when it comes to mental health,” says Quinsee. “The last 18 months have produced more than usual life stressors, so learning to manage our stress is key to our ability to function and operate and go from surviving to thriving.”

On the plus side, Quinsee says the pandemic has made people take stock of their lives and re-evaluate what is important to them.

“We’re beginning to challenge our definition of success (and failure), be honest about who we are, why we are here, where we are going and what we really want in life. As we begin to shape the answers to these questions and gain new insights, they are bound to trigger new learnings, profound personal growth and a path toward living a more balanced, quality of life on our terms.”

5 tips for stress management

Limit exposure to negativity
Quinsee suggests limiting your exposure to news, social media, and toxic people or environments as much as you can. “Be aware of your own mindset and emotional state and take action when you find yourself veering down that slippery road,” she advises.

Improve your body’s fuel
The Heart and Stroke Foundation notes that a good diet helps with stress management as it’s rich in certain nutrients that get used up more quickly when you’re stressed, such as B vitamins (essential to a healthy central nervous system), and vitamin C and zinc (essential to the immune system).

Cultivate healthy coping mechanisms
Quinsee suggests these might include

  • self-awareness
  • mindfulness practices (e.g. meditation)
  • exercise or movement
  • tapping into support structures (family, friends, mentors, faith communities, or a professional service provider like a life coach)
  • self-care routines (such as implementing boundaries, cutting out negative self-talk, and making time for yourself)

Get enough sleep
The Sleep Foundation says that stress can cause insomnia, and chronic stress can lead to sleep apnoea. However, you can improve your chances of getting a good night’s rest by sticking to a sleep schedule, creating an optimal sleeping environment and keeping blue light from electronics out of the bedroom.

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Cut yourself some slack
“Accept that we are all human and some days will be ‘down’ days,” suggests Quinsee. “We can’t be on a happy high all the time; it’s unrealistic. Some days our energy levels will be low due to the demands in our life (career, family, etc.), so acknowledge that. Be kind and gentle on yourself in the process and have an attitude of gratitude for the small things in life. Do not compare yourself to others, as comparison is the thief of joy.”

It was stressful being South African before the pandemic, and now we’re all living with an extra burden of stress – but it can be managed! It starts with awareness, and we’re certain that if you try some of the steps we’ve outlined above, you’ll soon be on your way to living a much less stressful life – and you’ll gain a healthier heart in the process.

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