A very interesting study looked at how our heart responds to mental stress.
Turns out, there is a very key difference between the way a woman’s heart responds to stress and the way a man’s heart responds.
Mental stress is well known to trigger cardiac changes (as I go into more detail on below…) but so far, no study had looked out a difference between the sexes.
Today’s study, published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology on Dec. 21, 2017, showed definitively that there is an incredible difference between how a woman’s cardiovascular system responds to mental stress and how a man’s cardiovascular system responds to mental stress.
- Researchers looked at 678 patients (average age: 63 years old) with coronary artery disease.
- They preformed myocardial perfusion imaging before and during a well known stressor: public speaking (I hear you! I get soooo anxious with public speaking as well! Perfect setting to see how the heart reacts to perceived emotional stress.)
- After obtaining the results of the cardiac perfusion study both at rest and during public speaking, researchers analyzed data from several different parameters of cardiac output and perfusion to see what affect the stress had on heart health.
- Turns out, men responded to the mental stress of public speaking by having a larger change in blood pressure, and a higher demand on the cardiovascular system to increase output. When there is cardiac stenosis (or narrowing of the cardiac arteries) so that the increased demands on the h can not be adequately met, this put the men at greater risk for heart attack.
- Women were the opposite. Women responded to the mental stress of public speaking by having greater peripheral vasoconstriction (meaning the blood vessels constricted more, which limited the blood flow through them.). This vasoconstriction sets women up to have a greater risk of heart attack during times of stress as well, but for an entirely different reason than men.
The Bottom Line?
We have no clue why women and men have different responses in the heart to mental stress, but we do now know what those differences are.
Men respond to stress with an increased demand for blood flow, and while the works harder in an attempt to pump more blood out, if their arteries are narrowed this creates a mismatch in how much blood can reach the tissues and the result is a heart attack.
Women respond to stress with decrease in the peripheral perfusion do to increased vasoconstriction, which puts them at higher risk for ischemic heart attack.
In other words, the male’s heart demands more output during stress
while a female’s vasculature constricts more during stress
and both responses put both men and women at increased risk of heart attack.
Same end result, but different pathways.
To me, this study serves to underscore how very strongly our mental and emotional state affect our well being.
It reminds me of a study I reviewed for you exactly one year ago this month. That medical study explained why there is a direct correlation between stress and heart attack.
It turns out, increased brain activity in the area of emotional processing (the amygdala) directly increases the risk of cardiovascular events.
This study was the first to show that increased amygdala activity in humans strongly predicts cardiovascular events such as stroke, heart attack and angina.
Here’s why the emotional center of our brain is connected to our heart health:
The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions, survival instincts and memory.
That about sums up how stress feels: it’s an increased emotional load, a feeling of being overwhelmed when trying to navigate a stressful situation, and traumatic memories from the past all get linked up with traumatic present experiences — which all come together to increase the metabolic activity in your amygdala.
- 293 patients underwent full body PET/CT scans at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA
- Resting metabolic activity in the amygdala, bone marrow and arterial walls were measured
- Increased resting metabolic activity in the amygdala was strongly correlated with increased bone marrow activity, increased arterial inflammation, and increased risk of cardiovascular events (stroke, MT, or angina) during an average follow up period of 3 1/2 years.
- In a follow up study, researchers examined 13 patients with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) who underwent PET scans and filled out a Stress Scale Questionnaire (PSS-10)
- They found that high levels of self rated stress correlated with increase in amygdala activity, higher levels of arterial inflammation, and higher levels of the blood inflammatory marker: C-reactive protein.
The bottom line: Based on these studies, researchers now believe that it is actually the brain activity of the amygdala (and emotional stress in particular) that links stressful events with cardiovascular disease — causing increased hemopoietic tissue activity (in the bone marrow, where blood is made) and increased vascular inflammation, both which directly increase cardiovascular disease and up the risk of stroke, heart attack and angina.
They believe that it is this increased activation of the emotional amgydala area of the brain that raises the risk for heart disease and stroke.
Chronic emotional stress raises the baseline metabolic rate of this particular area of the brain, and strongly and directly raises the risk factor for cardiovascular events.
The link between stress and heart attack, stroke, and angina is so pronounced that researchers are advocating stress levels to be considered an independent risk factor for heart disease, along with other cardiac risk factors such as age, smoking history, and family history of heart disease.
Further proof: A study published two years ago (April 5, 2016 in Circulation) shows that this idea has real world applications.
Researchers followed over 150 patients who were assigned to have cardiac rehab care following a cardiac event, and found that by adding stress management skills into their cardiac rehab program they were able to slash the rate of future cardiac events in a 5 year follow up period IN HALF!
So if addressing stress reduces the risk of subsequent heart attack by 50%,
now we know why: stressful brain activity is
directly correlated with cardiovascular events.
Reduce the stress response in the brain, reduce heart disease in the body.
So today, here are 10 actions can you take today to decrease cardiac stress even on the most stressful days of your life:
1. Reconnect with nature.
All you have to do here is walk out your front door, step out of your office, or stop driving and step out of your car.
To reconnect with nature is to reconnect with wonder.
Whether it’s just a few deep breaths as you sit on a patch of grass, simply taking a walk through a local park, or full on spending a night under the stars… reconnecting with the wonder of being a human being standing on a rock that spirals through space and seeing the earth for the vast support network it is can’t help but lift your spirits for the better.
The health benefits of grounded — simply touching the earth — are immediate. Brain activity on EEG immediately responds and becomes less stressful, C-reactive protein levels drop over time, and sleep becomes deeper and more restorative.
The power of nature can hold even your worst of days and remain an immovable source of strength.
Don’t believe me?
The next time you are having a panic attack, or a pounding headache, or a knot of worry grow in your stomach, just go outside. Get out there. Don’t force anything, just start walking and let nature work its magic.
And consider sleeping grounded all night long to help you recover from the stress of the day.
If you have a high stress job and are interested in protecting yourself from stress in the work place you absolutely can ground your body there too.
Resting your hands on a grounding mat while you use your computer, wearing grounding socks under your shoes, or putting a grounding patch anywhere on your body will help decrease inflammation and offset the effects of prolonged stress on your health.
Hop over here to see more options to be grounded both indoors and out!
2. Focus on Spirit.
This is something shown over and over again in the medical literature — the power of prayer to affect clinical outcome is a beautiful fact.
The surest way I know to alleviate stress and suffering is to find meaning in it.
Whether it’s through mediation, personal prayer, asking friends and family to pray for you, cultivating your own sense of spirit surrounding and supporting you — these are all such important ways to alleviate stress.
The divine support system is around you, surrounding you, whether you are able to feel it or not.
Never fear that. Nothing is required of you.
But calling on the power of prayer and connecting with that reservoir of love is an instant boost that strengthens you and changes outcome, no doubt about it.
Need some more inspiration?
Read Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl.
He is a concentration camp survivor who writes beautifully about how the people who survived these horrific conditions were not the strongest, or youngest, or even the healthiest… they were the ones who found meaning in what they were going through.
Finding a deeper, spiritual meaning in what you are going through is — in and of itself — enough to decrease the stress of the experience you are going through.
My kids will tell you that if I am really grumpy, all we have to do is hop in the car and turn on the radio and within a few songs, all of a sudden I don’t feel so stressed out.
In fact, I feel optimistic and grateful and filled with the same sense of wonder and possibility that I feel when I spend time in nature.
The power of music to wash through you and lift you is amazing.
If you are feeling stressed or depressed, especially if you can not leave your current surroundings (perhaps you are in the hospital or your office or your car…) slip on some music and allow it to sweep through your soul and lift you higher.
Music is universal and can meet you wherever you are.
4. Reach out to your support system.
There IS a support system around you, even if you don’t think you have a friend in the world.
I know I didn’t fully realize how many people I had, providing back up support in my life, until I went through a personal crisis.
Some of my most meaningful sources of support were from people I had never ever met before — like the manager at my local bank and the complete stranger who came to pick up some furniture I got rid of as we downsized our belongings.
Both of these people forever changed my life.
Both of these people are angels living on earth.
And don’t even get me started on the unbelievably generous neighbors, friends and family that I actively leaned on for support.
If you are having a stressful crisis, ask for help.
Ask your neighbor, ask your family, ask your friends.
If you have none of the above, go out into the world asking for help to show up — go to the park, go to your bank, go to the grocery store, go to the thrift shop.
Angels are out there waiting to embrace and help you.
A symbolic fresh start during times of stress can help you move on towards healing and help usher in new, positive and hopeful energy instead of feeling stuck.
This might mean it feels right to literally move, relocate, and start a fresh chapter of your life. A new living space, a new job, a new healthier environment, new resources to surround you, a move to a more walkable community, a living arrangement that takes financial stress off of you… lots of options when redesigning a fresh start.
But even if it is impossible to move, you can go through your current living space with the idea of bringing in fresh energy — freshening up the plants in each room, rearranging whatever furniture you can, adding a mirror or two and burning candles of light in the evenings to help create a new flow of light through old, dark and depressing spaces.
And even if you can’t do that — even if you can’t do anything to change your physical surroundings, creating a symbolic gesture in order to usher in a new start is so very important.
From going outside to take a deep breath of air, to lighting a smudge stick, to ringing a bell and setting a new intention for the space you are in, do something to break the illusion that you are stuck.
You are not stuck.
You are a new person every single day and every moment within that day.
When our physical surroundings don’t change, especially in the midst of great stress, you can get caught up in the illusion that your situation is permanent and hopeless.
This is not so… there is always an ebb and a flow of energy through every situation no matter how unchanging it appears on the surface.
The illusion that things never change can mentally hold you in a place of worry.
Release this by making small changes to your living space:
- physically leaving the space you are in for a breath or two
- lighting candles/incense/sage smudging
- ringing bells and chimes
- bring in new lighting
- adding a mirror
- bringing in a new plant…
- going on a long walk
- exercising away all of your nervous energy
…whatever it takes to feel the energy shift in your body and your space to remind you that nothing… NOTHING …stays the same forever.
6. Gratitude and compassion
This is a no-brainer — one of the gifts of going through suffering is that you can witness and hold other people’s suffering so much more fully.
Compassion and gratitude for the journey and knowing that others have made it through ordeals much much MUCH worse can really help instill hope to your own journey.
Knowing the darker side, leaning into it, persevering through it, witnessing with compassion what others have gone through… all of these things make traveling your own dark night feel less lonely and more optimistic in the sense that you KNOW you will reach the other side.
You WILL reach the other side.
Focus on witnessing suffering in others around you and holding compassion for the entire yin and yang of it all, the darkness and light of the world… the richness here is a different twist on helping to find meaning in suffering and the gift here is being able to open your heart even wider then you thought possible before.
Studies have shown that sleep deprivation is even harder to bear on folks with anxiety or stress. If you are going through a time of great stress, it is more important than ever before in your entire life that you sleep well.
You MUST SLEEP in order to recover from the stress of the day and the stress of the situation.
It is possible to treat anxiety solely through increasing the quality of your sleep.
Read this blog post for more ideas on increasing sleep quality!
8. Body work.
The feeling of worry and stress and anxiety is often the stress of energy that is accumulating in the body without release.
I know I personally feel this as a ball of pressure right in my solar plexus, but it’s different for everyone.
Irritability, crying, headaches, diarrhea, nausea, tension, muscle stiffness, decreased or increased appetite, weight loss or gain, insomnia… often these all represent energy that just needs to be released to make room for the natural healing process and health/hope to return.
If you are feeling stuck and in need of physical release, do any or ALL of the following to help assist your body in letting go of old traumas:
- deep stretches
- rebounding (basically this is just jumping on a mini trampoline)
- long daily walks (get a dog if you need to hold yourself accountable to a daily walk!)
- heat (hot water bottles are the best!)
- water (in the form of showers or baths, as well as increasing hydration by drinking lots of water!)
- tai chi (a recent study showed that tai chi was actually better than aerobic exercise in alleviating fibromyalgia pain, FYI!)
9. Add these supplements to protect your heart:
1. fish oil — omega 3 fatty acids offer a calming effect on the brain
2. probiotics — the link between the body and mind starts in our gut
3. resveratrol for long term heart health
4. trace mineral drops to support heart function (including the very important mineral magnesium!)
5. and CoQ10 supplements to support heart health as well — all found in my online pharmacy here.
10. Understand your heart from an energetic perspective.
What can you do to protect the longevity of your heart medically, spiritually, emotionally, energetically?
If you can only do one thing to reduce stress on your heart, it’s simply to understand your heart better.
We have a heart to pump blood (and thereby deliver oxygen and nutrients) to every part of our body.
It’s function is absolutely critical to life.
The heart is composed of a mass of muscle cells who’s function is to work together to deliver the *energy* of blood to our entire organism.
But what is the one thing your heart needs in order to do all this, in order to function at all? Flexibility.
It’s strength is it’s flexibility.
If your heart is boxed in, walled up, protected… it’s not flexible at all.
It can’t work.
It will eventually self-strangulate.
It absolutely *needs* to have it’s walls broken down, removed, in order to maintain it’s strength.
This is exactly what happens with our heart physically.
Our blood vessels become coated with plaques…
…but these plaques, instead of strengthening our vessels, strangulate them.
The more coated, the thicker the walls, the more risk of heart attack (remember I told you about this in the first study I reviewed for you today? Men, especially, are at risk for this type of heart attack when under stress.)
The heart is pure muscle, pure power, pure strength…
…and it uses it’s core strength, which is the strength of flexibility, to function.
It uses muscular contractions to deliver it’s heartsong… oxygen, nutrition, nurturing, love, joy, and freedom… to the entire body.
This is the power of the heart, when it is full of love, lubricated by life, flexible, bending and free.
If your heart is hardened, if you are protecting yourself by building walls, if you are living life defensively, how can your heart spread joy and health freely to your entire body?
- Your heart can not feed your body — can not feed your body joy — if it is strangled by the walls you have built.
- Lightness, joy, love… these are the emotional vibrations that keep your heart flexible and strong.
- These are the antidotes to any hardening of your heart you might be feeling.
- These are the ways to break down the immobile walls that we naturally build as we protect ourselves along the path of our life.
Protecting ourselves comes at a price.
Building walls brings a brittleness, a false strength that can suffocate that which you are trying to protect.
With your own flexibility gone, you lose your power.
Far more powerful is the heart that can open fully and contract fully… that can feel fully.
So the first step, find what barriers you have built.
Allow them to soften.
Your ability to yield to life and it’s inevitable pleasures and joy and sorrows and pain, with as little resistance as possible, will make you stronger.
If your heart is feeling brittle, limited, stiff, hardened, or empty, nurture your own heart first.
Begin with flexibility.
Allow your thoughts to expand, give yourself the flexibility to allow multiple points of view, the vulnerability to be hurt, and the strength to bounce back even stronger.
Give yourself a little love. A little softness. A little forgiveness. A little flexibility.
Flexibility is what makes your heart strong.
Powerful flexibility is what feeds your entire body.
Flexibility is what makes *you* strong.
I painted this painting for you, from a page in my med school anatomy book, to help remind you:
So, with the focus on flexibility and embracing our core strength by being open and pliable… where can our hearts take us?
What is the opposite of being constricted, walled in, brittle?
Expansion, baby, expansion!
Our hearts are the center of our ability to expand… expand beyond just ourselves, and beyond just our limited experience, and expand beyond just this one lifetime.
We can feel our connection to others, and our eternal nature.
Our heart center expands outwards in spirals of light, right from the center of our being.
Have you ever sat, focusing on something that made you so happy, and just felt your heart grow larger and larger and larger still?
Have you ever felt that your chest was going to explode, your heart energy got so big?
Have you ever felt your heart vibration reach past your chest, past your body, reach into the space around, to the people around you, to the universe around you?
It feels so good, and it feels so good because it is the healthy state of being connected to all of the energy around you.
You are dropping the limited barriers of what defines *you* and reaching out to *all that is*… in this state, I feel that no disease state could maintain itself for long.
In this state, you are pure, positive joy.
In this state, you have blown up all the barriers around your heart, the ones that you built to *protect you* but that actually harm you… they are dissolved and meaningless.
You are greater than this one moment in time, this one body, this one lifetime.
Through your heart, you can expand past any problem, any limitation.
Through your heart, you can connect to all that is physical and non-physical around you.
Through your heart, you can *feel* the eternal that you can’t figure out with your brain.
Your heart is an amazing organ, designed to pump nutrition and health throughout your entire body.
It’s designed to pump joy and love throughout your entire being.
Do not limit it to what it physically can do.
Do not regard it as a piece of muscle designed to transport blood.
Instead, really *feel* the entire purpose of it’s design.
It is the one organ, more than any other, that connects your entire body of being together.
It reaches every tissue, every surface, every organ.
Through it’s immense meshwork of vasculature,
your heart is one of complete and utter connection.
Physically, expanding to every single cell in your body… and emotionally, expanding your life force from you to the universe.
I painted this heart chakra artwork to show the energy of the heart expanding outwards in spirals of beauty!
To strengthen and expand you feelings of health and joy, remember those experiences where you feel your heart expanding, and seek to find those more often.
Sit in them and appreciate them when you are in those states of expansion, when you are feeling bigger then life.
In this state you are realizing that the walls you build around your body and mind are no longer helpful, but instead, are constricting.
I feel these states easiest when I sit in appreciation for my children.
I can sit in a room with them and literally feel my heart pound against my chest, expanding through my entire body, then out of my body, pulsing into the universe and connecting me to a greater love.
It is in these moments that I *know* I am tapped in to something more than just myself.
And it is in these moments that I know my connection to my children is eternal.
Do what you can, today, to find a moment like this and savor it.
You have just found your heartsong.
Every moment you spend in that state, you spend in the state of pure and absolute health.
I hope this list of 10 things you can do to decrease stress and improve your heart health… even in the middle of great personal turmoil… is helpful to you and a blessing of some ideas to consider.
Offered with much love…