STRESS. Just the word has the power to bring some recent experiences to our minds: The slow driver in the fast lane, the flashing lights pulling you over, the completely indifferent store clerk, and the list goes on and on. You can feel the tension building inside, your heart seems to beat harder and faster, your head begins to pound, and suddenly, every muscle in your body seems tense.
Though “common knowledge” seems to have historically stated stress is harmful, recent studies have actually begun to delve into exactly how stress is harmful. Looking at some of these studies, one of the most interesting points that struck me was that some data show that it may not be the stressor itself but our individual reaction to the stress that is the real problem.
Type A personalities (impatient, chronic sense of urgency, competitive – you know who you are) are shown to be at higher risk of coronary artery disease than those with Type B personalities (patient, low-key, laid back). That means that given the same stressful situation, some people will react with an adrenaline “fight or flight” rush along with frustration and anger while others tend to be more even keeled. Though this may have been helpful when we were trying to outrun saber tooth tigers on the Serengeti, nowadays, this just means some people expose their bodies to the rapid rise in blood pressure, heart rate, and sheer stress on their arteries more often than others.
This also means that it is useless for physicians, like me, to tell you to “avoid stress” without moving us all to a tropical island away from civilization. Even then, many of us Type A individuals – yes, I admit it – will create our own stressful situation no matter where we go. For example, “The sand is in my shoes,” “That sun is just so bright,” “The seagulls are too loud,” and “My cell phone gets no reception on this island.” However, this also means that we have the power to practice lowering our stress level. Life will always have stress, but what we can do is learn better ways to respond to it. So what can you do?
1. Identify the things that cause you the most stress. If you are lucky enough to figure out a way to avoid it entirely, then do so, but the reality is that achieving zero stress is rarely feasible.
2. Identify what your mind and body’s reaction are to your key stressors. What happens first? Does your back tense up? Does your heart pound? Do you reflexively clench your teeth or fists? By identifying your body’s first negative reaction to stress, you can begin to implement stress management techniques before these negative responses spread.
3. Learn a multitude of stress management techniques. I liken this to having a whole toolbox available to dealing with stress because you never know when it is going to hit. You want to be prepared with the right tool at the right time. Yoga and meditation are great means to channel stress, but these won’t work if you are driving. Breathing exercises and exercise in general are also helpful, but if you are in a meeting with your boss, he or she may notice if you begin jogging in place. One thing I do when faced with a complicated, stressful situation is to sing an old Sunday school song I learned about a snail named Herbert called “Have Patience.” Again, this doesn’t go so well in meetings, trust me. That is why learning a multitude of ways to force your body to react differently to stress is essential.
In essence, we can become our body’s worst enemy by allowing stress to continue unchecked. By recognizing our negative response to stressful situations and implementing a means to quickly diffuse this response, we can avoid increasing our risk of heart disease. As a Type A person, I can tell you this is one of the hardest battles I face every day. However, I think that by realizing it and changing how I react to stress, I can change my life and even my life expectancy. This is a very powerful motivator.
Jennifer Cummings, MD, FACC
Clinical Cardiologist and Cardiac Electrophysiologist
City Cardiology Associates, Akron, Ohio
Summa Cardiovascular Institute