The Silent Threat of Stress to Women’s Heart Health

As we mark Wear Red Day, it’s crucial to spotlight a frequently overlooked aspect of women’s health – the impact of stress on heart disease. While heart disease is often underdiagnosed and undertreated in women, stress significantly exacerbates this risk. As a heart attack survivor and creator of the Stress-Proof System, I understand firsthand the importance of managing stress to protect our hearts. My passion for women and heart disease fuels my work. As an advocate for the American Heart Association, I’ve lobbied Congress and state legislature for improved care and even hosted a rally on the US Capitol steps for the HEART for Women Act. One of the most underaddressed risk factors for heart disease is STRESS!

The Insidious Rise of Baseline Stress

In our fast-paced world, bombarded by endless news cycles and the pressures of daily life, our baseline stress levels can silently escalate. This type of stress, accumulating over time, often goes unnoticed but can profoundly affect our well-being. It can manifest physically as disrupted sleep or persistent headaches; mentally, it clouds our thinking and creativity.

In the Stress-Proof System, I emphasize the importance of practical, skills-based approaches to stress management, customized to individual needs and situations. Here are some key strategies:

  • Manage Baseline Stress: Recognize and actively lower your day-to-day stress levels.
  • Disconnect from Stress and Recover: Learn to shut down the cortisol flood and reduce internal pressure.
  • Release Cortisol: Engage in activities that help process cortisol out of your body.

Manage Baseline Stress

Baseline stress accumulates silently, often unrecognized, but it can significantly impact our physical and mental health. It’s essential to:

  • Take Notice: Acknowledge the feeling of stress. Tools like the Baseline Stress Level Quiz can be beneficial in gauging where you stand.
  • Limit Exposure: Consider the impact of continuous news and social media on your stress levels. Reducing exposure can be a crucial step in managing baseline stress.
  • Proactive Reduction: Engage in simple activities like daily walks, staying hydrated, and improving sleep habits to lower your baseline stress actively.

Disconnect from Stress and Recover

Our brains are hardwired to respond to stress, but when the stress signals don’t stop, it leads to chronic stress with physical and emotional consequences. This internal pressure reduces our ability to withstand external pressures and stress. To effectively disconnect and recover, turn off the stress faucet by disconnecting it from the source. Stress management is far from a one-size-fits-all solution; we each have unique responses to stress, and our ability to recover varies.

On a vacation in Mexico, a simple observation became a profound insight into stress recovery. My husband, Clay, and I were with a group of friends at a resort catering to scuba enthusiasts. While the others lounged by the pool like iguanas, basking in the stillness, Clay, much like a border collie, needed to be on the move.

After a while, one friend commented, “You are always on the go. When are you going to relax?” They didn’t realize that Clay was relaxing, just in his own way. He jokingly replied over dinner, “I’m like a border collie: if I don’t have something to do, I start chewing on things.” This was both humorous and true. It is an apt metaphor for how Clay unwinds. While quiet and stillness can be meditative for some, for others like Clay, staying physically active or mentally occupied is a necessary diversion from stress.

Are you an iguana or a border collie regarding stress relief? Understanding which one you are can be vital in managing your stress effectively.

  • For the Iguanas: Embrace activities that allow you to stop and soak in the calm. It could be reading a book, practicing gentle yoga, or enjoying a quiet coffee on your porch. Quiet, contemplative activities are the key.
  • For the Border Collies: Seek activities that engage your mind and body. This could be woodworking, where your focus on crafting something beautiful frees the mind. Highly occupying activities are the ticket, whether physically engaging, mentally occupying, or both.

We can create peace amid the chaos by identifying and embracing our unique stress recovery needs. Whether you need the quiet contemplation of an iguana or the active engagement of a border collie, finding your path to relaxation is worth taking. Remember, stress management is deeply personal, and there’s no wrong way to unwind.

Tip: Take the Stress Recovery Personality Quiz to determine whether you are on Team Iguana, Team Border Collie, or somewhere in between.

Release Cortisol

High cortisol levels lead to thicker blood, increased blood pressure, and elevated pulse rates, straining the heart. If we can bring our cortisol levels back to normal and keep them there most of the time, we can reduce the risk of heart disease to the things we can’t change, such as age and family history. 

Help your body do what it is designed to do— get rid of cortisol! 

Activities that direct your body to reduce cortisol and help process it out of your system offset the physical impact of your stress. Here are three quick ways to signal your body it is time to release cortisol:

  1. Raise your heart rate. When your heart rate goes up, stays there for 10 or 15 minutes, and comes back down, your body releases cortisol. This interaction is why exercise is often called the “antidote to stress.”
  2. Change your breath. When you lengthen and deepen your breathing, your body lets go of cortisol – and it feels good, too. This is why yoga and meditation are effective for some people. Others may find laughing and singing equally effective.
  3. Change your view. Get up and move to a different location in your house or workplace – better yet, go outside. Your brain perceives the change and releases cortisol.
  4. Improve your sleep habits. Good quality sleep is the best way to process cortisol out of your body!

Managing stress is not just about heart health; it’s integral to our overall well-being and quality of life. Let’s commit to understanding and effectively managing our stress on this Wear Red Day. By embracing strategies that resonate with our needs, we can protect our hearts and enhance our lives. Remember, you can control stress and not let it control you. Embrace your journey toward a low-stress, heart-healthy life.

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