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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Heart Attack: Stress won't kill you, but not taking care of it might

Mindfulness Linked to Good Cardiovascular Health

Do you consider yourself a person who is aware and attentive to what you're thinking and feeling? Turns out a study from Brown University discovered a link between better cardiovascular health and people who are mindful of what they think and feel. 
That's great news for me--and I hope for you. I pride myself on being highly aware of what I'm thinking and feeling most of the time. And apparently most of the time is good enough...most of the time. 
According to the researchers, a high mindfulness score associated with better cardiovascular health is more about having good mind-body awareness most of the time than about our regularly practicing mindfulness exercises, like meditation. 

But why should this higher awareness of our thoughts and feelings produce better cardiovascular health?  In all probability it is related to our ability to better manage stress.

Some health professionals, me included, do not believe heart attacks are caused by clogged arteries, but are due instead to an imbalance between our sympathetic--or fight or flight nervous system--and our parasympathetic--or calming nervous system--due to chronic stress. 

In fact, researchers discovered a single intense incidence of anger results in an 8.5 times increased risk of having a heart attack in the two hours following the outburst.

Regardless of whether you believe stress is the cause of heart attacks or not, you cannot disregard the critical role chronic stress plays in setting you up for poor cardiovascular health. Stress causes inflammation in the body--a condition associated with increased risk for cardiovascular events. 

Without an awareness of how you're responding to daily stressful events, your body will continue to release adrenaline--the stress hormone--that keeps you in constant readiness for fight or flight while suppressing your calming hormones.

While stress won't kill you, failing to balance your fight or flight 'stress' system with your calming nervous system very well could.

Pride Comes Before the Fall--or is that Rise?

Unfortunately it never pays to be too smug or overconfident about how smart or aware you are--especially about things that concern your health! 

I know this first-hand as I am quite smug about how consciously I live my life and manage my stress. I pride myself on being a person who remains calm in the midst of stressful situations--always believing in my ability to handle whatever comes my way.

But you know the saying 'pride comes before the fall'? Well in my case I would say pride came before the rise. 

I recently experienced a concerning rise in my blood pressure that despite my best efforts to bring it back down, kept rising. As I had been sick for a month I thought perhaps that was the cause so I sought medical help and accepted a prescription for an additional blood pressure lowering medicine.

But as I often do, I observed what I revealed or failed to reveal in my medical appointment. I watched as I calmly and objectively reported all appropriate vital signs measured over the course of two weeks, clearly showing a sudden and sustained increase in blood pressure and heart rate. I heard myself describe the duration and symptoms of the illness and what I had done to get back to health. And I explored all factors I thought could contribute to a sudden rise in blood pressure--except the obvious one.

What I failed to report was the stress I was experiencing at work that was forcing me to consider quitting. In my defense, it wasn't until I was talking with the nurse practitioner that I even allowed myself to see an inkling of truth about the stress-factor. I was in denial--simply ignoring what I didn't want to see. 

When 'Most of the Time' isn't Good Enough
While being mindful most of the time is good enough most of the time--sometimes the belief we are better than others at recognizing and handling stress can blind us to an immediate situation causing our body to negatively react.

It is especially challenging to stay mindful of how you're reacting when you're in the middle of a stressful situation. 

And if like me you view yourself as someone who always handles your stress well, you too can ignore the mounting physical distress, and dismiss the effects the stress is creating in your body. That's when you need to call on your friends, family and body to help you see the obvious so you can take healthful actions.

Listen to Your Body and Seek Advice from Trusted Friends

Although I failed to acknowledge a link between my work stress to the sudden and sustained increase in blood pressure to my medical provider, just the act of making the appointment and exploring my options with her opened my eyes to the truth I didn't want to speak.

I felt an almost immediate release after I left the medical appointment--not because I had a prescription, but because I gave myself a glimpse of the truth. I suspected my blood pressure was going to go down all by itself now that I came to terms with what my body was telling me--and it has.

When your body tells you something is wrong, as mine did, that is the time to reach out to others who can help you see and state the truth. 

I made an appointment to deal with the blood pressure rise because my sister insisted I go--and after my appointment I confessed the obvious truth to her. And her response to my revelation the rising blood pressure was due to work issues? "Duh."
It is our bodies and our loved ones that can gently guide us past our denial so we can get back on a self aware path--if we're willing to listen.
Sometimes when we're in denial, we just need a nudge from our bodies and from others to point us in the right direction that we already knew we needed to go. 

3 Tips: Self Awareness For Cardiovascular Health 

Staying aware and attentive to your thoughts and feelings is an essential part of managing your stress and therefore your cardiovascular health. Sometimes that means knowing when to seek help from others, tracking your health markers, and taking actions to alleviate stress.

  • Seek friends and family advice
  • Visit your medical professional
  • Pay attention: track your blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep patterns.

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For more than 30 years, Susan Meyerott has been helping people lighten up and step over invisible barriers to change one step at a time. She speaks to your heart, puts you at ease, and makes changing easier than ever before.

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Jean | said...

Sue, I've quoted from, and referred people to, this post twice this week. Once was with a friend who has an anger problem and a heart problem (A-fib). Also, I had a stressful situation (a slow-paying, might've been no-paying for all I knew, freelance client) that had my heart racing one evening until I sat myself down and gave myself a good talking-to! Thanks for your words of wisdom.

Susan J Meyerott, M.S. said...

Jean I am so glad I can help you at the same time I keep myself honest! Sue