Protect Your Heart with Stress Reduction

“The mind has great influence over the body, and maladies often have their origin there.” – Moliere

Today’s HEALTHbeat newsletter from Harvard Medical School discusses the importance of reducing stress to your overall cardiovascular health.  An abundance of research suggests that many psychological factors affect your heart health.  Different types of stress can contribute to cardiovascular symptoms and outcome, especially heart attack risk.

Emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, or anger all play significant roles in the development of many forms of cardiac problems.  The good news is that there are proactive steps that you can take to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease through specific stress reduction and self-care strategies.

Stress & Cardiovascular Disease

The HEALTHbeat newsletter discusses 4 major types of stress that contribute to cardiovascular disease:

Workplace Stress:

  • Women in stressful workplace environments have a 40% increased risk of heart disease
  • “Job strain” – The combination of demand (amount, pace, & difficulty of work) and control (ability to be creative or make work-related decisions)
  • Twofold higher risk of newly diagnosed heart disease among men who believed rewards at work were incompatible with their efforts

Financial Stress:

  • According to a 2010 report in The American Journal of Cardiology, heart attacks have risen since the stock market crashed
  • Rate of heart attacks increased steadily during a particularly bad time period for the stock market (Sept. ’08 – March ’09)

Caregiver Stress:

  • Women who care for a disabled spouse for at least 9 hours / week are significantly more at risk for having a heart attack or dying from heart disease compared to women with no caregiving duties

Disaster-related Stress:

  • According to a study done with 2,700 people immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, people with high levels of stress immediately after the attacks were twice as likely to develop high blood pressure and three times as likely to develop heart problems during the following two years compared to people with low stress levels
  • Earthquakes trigger stress-related heart problems for years afterward – sudden cardiac deaths rose dramatically after the 1994 earthquake in the Los Angeles area and hospitalization for heart attacks rose on the day of the 1995 earthquake near Kobe, Japan
  • A long-term follow-up study of another major earthquake in Japan in 2004 indicated that death rates from heart attacks rose during the three years after the quake

Stress & Lifestyle Changes

Harvard Medical School’s HEALTHbeat newsletter suggests the following lifestyle changes that can help minimize your stress level:

(1) Get enough restorative sleep

It is important to learn about sleep hygiene in order to create a routine and environment that are most conducive to restful sleep.  Mindfulness can be effectively applied to your sleep routine as well, to let go of stress, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts.  Insufficient levels of sleep or inadequate/restless sleep can negatively affect your mood, energy levels, mental alertness, and physical well-being.

(2) Exercise

It is common knowledge that physical exercise has a wide variety of benefits to your physical and psychological health.  Different people benefit from different forms of exercise, so it is important to consult with a medical professional about any physical limitations that you may have.  Some people find vigorous cardiovascular exercise to be a wonderful stress-reliever, while others find yoga to be incredibly balancing and beneficial to overall well-being.

(3) Relaxation techniques

Different forms of mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization exercises, and deep breathing exercises are well-known forms of stress-relief based in mindfulness.

(4) Time-management skills

Learning how to integrate time-management skills into your life can help you feel more organized, which can decrease levels of stress and anxiety.  When things are cluttered, scattered, and messy, it is easy to feel out of control, tense, and stressed.  Organization and time-management provide you with the freedom to direct your focus elsewhere.

(5) Confront stressful situations head-on

The more that we engage in experiential avoidance and push away or deny thoughts, feelings, or situations that are uncomfortable, the more damage they cause us.  Rather than get ourselves stuck in the control and avoidance cycle, it is best to confront the stressful situation directly, with full mindful awareness.  Mindfulness allows you to take in as much information as possible about the situation, which enables you to make the best decisions possible.

(6) Nurture yourself

It is crucial to take the time to engage in self-care activities to decrease stress and increase overall health and well-being.  Fully engage with the present moment and listen to what your body and internal state are trying to tell you.  Apply mindfulness to the present moment to recognize if you are feeling stressed, anxious or tired.  When you become more tuned in to your experience, you will be better able to respond and give yourself the care that you truly need.

We cannot escape the fact that stress comes along with life.  We cannot control all of the events that happen in life… such as, the illness of a loved one, a sudden job loss, a sharp decline in the stock market, or natural disasters.  What we can control is the way that we take care of our physical and psychological health.  We also have control over how we choose to respond to stressful events.

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Featured image: Hearts by Irargerich / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Amy Looper on August 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Hi Laura!

    I appreciate you for including caregiving as one of the major heart stressors! It’s something that really crept up on me as my caregiving responsibilities have increased. I’m the sole caregiver for my mom and step-father so this is an excellent reminder for me to include some relaxation and exercise time for me into my day.

    I found myself so stressed out and unable to sleep at night a couple of years ago due to worrying about my mom that I called her one day and asked if she would indulge my need to hear her voice every single night before I went to sleep. Even if we had talked already or if I had been with her earlier in the day. At first she thought I was really off my rocker to be worrying so much and maybe I was “hovering” too much! But I explained that I had figured out that I could tell exactly how she was feeling by the tone of her voice even if she told me she was ok and not to worry.

    I told her that instead of me worrying “if” she was ok by days end that I was hoping that if I talked to her for a quick “nighty-night” call before I went to bed I could allow my mind to calm the worry of “what if” and sleep better. Thankfully she’s an awesome Mom and got it that it was more about me ;- ) and not about me trying to hover over her more.

    I just didn’t realize how hard my subconscious brain was working to “control” what “might” happen by worrying about it all night. Wow! What an immediate difference it made for my stress level and my ability to get a way better night’s rest!

    So you are sooooo right on about how powerful the mind is and the effects it can have on our heart and in my case my brain as well — physically and emotionally!

    Thanks so much for continuing to produce awesome posts and sharing your valuable knowledge! As I’ve mentioned I may not always reply but I scan-read them regularly and you’re awesome!

    With gratitude!


    • Laura on August 14, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      Amy – I’m glad you appreciated the acknowledgment of caregiving as a significant source of stress on the heart. It sounds like you have a full plate of responsibilities as far as giving care to your mom and step-father. It is so important to remember to integrate regular self-care strategies into your regular routine, especially when you have significant responsibilities and sources of stress. That’s great that you’ve managed to arrange a little “goodnight routine” with your mom the way that you have. I can imagine that it provides you with great peace of mind! The mind is definitely powerful. If we learn how to work with our minds, rather than fight back against our minds, we can experience real relief from unnecessary stress.

      Thank you so much for your comment. I’m happy to hear that you continue to enjoy the posts. Thanks, Amy!

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