Updated: Feb 11, 2022
February is Heart Month here in Canada. What better time to talk about what we can do to support our cardiovascular health? And trust me, that topic has been on my mind, a lot. Because, at the beginning of December, I brought myself to the ER after experiencing multiple symptoms of a heart attack.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, almost 80% of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented through healthy behaviours.
This means that almost any healthy behaviour we choose to focus on can have a substantial impact on our heart health. And there are so many to choose from! Reducing stress levels, increasing physical activity, becoming smoke free, adjusting certain aspects of our diet (1), even prioritizing proper sleep can have a big impact on the health of our heart (2). So, given what the entire world has been experiencing for the past 2 years, I thought stress management would be a good place to start.
So What Does Managing Stress Have To Do With Heart Disease?
The World Health Organization suggests that one of the biggest risk factors associated with heart disease is high blood pressure (3). When we get stressed, our blood pressure can become elevated. Repeated elevations of blood pressure has been to shown to increase our risk of developing hypertension, or chronic high blood pressure (4).
The World Health Organization also shares that excessive alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, tobacco, and certain aspects of our dietary choices are some of the biggest lifestyle factors contributing to heart disease. So, we also need to be mindful of what stress management techniques we rely on most often, and consider whether there is some overlap with those higher risk lifestyle factors listed above. Many of us use things like alcohol, Netflix, favourite treats or take out as ways to cheer ourselves up after a stressful day. If these are the only coping techniques we have available to us, we might be leaving ourselves open to additional health concerns down the road. Of course, that doesn't mean we can't ever use those strategies, it just means we also want to expand our stress management toolbox, so that we can better support our overall health, specifically our heart health.
Back at the Hospital...
So there I was, sitting on a hospital bed, listing the symptoms I had experienced earlier that morning. (Psst! Heart attack symptoms go beyond chest pain or heaviness on the chest! Learn the symptoms at heartandstroke.ca). Thankfully, after a few rounds of tests, the doctors assured me that I hadn't had a heart attack, rather, it was likely an anxiety attack, and I agreed that it was time to figure out a few ways I could reduce the stress in my life.
But let's be real here: You and I both know that a lot of what is contributing to our current stress levels is out of our control.
There's only so much you can do when the majority of your stress is coming from situations you don't have any control over. So I did what every other chronically stressed soul would do: I added "FIGURE OUT STRESS STUFF" in big block letters to my never-ending to do list, assured myself I would put aside some time "next week when things were a bit less busy", and forgot about it for approximately 6 weeks.
About halfway through January, more warning signs came to me in the form of less manageable chronic pain, a lack of appetite, and sleepless nights. The note to "FIGURE OUT STRESS STUFF" I wrote on my to do list 6 weeks prior came rushing back to me. After googling several self-care ideas, I realized that stress management does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. Bath bombs and a glass of wine were not going to support me through stress, they were only going to briefly distract me. I needed realistic supports to match the different symptoms I experience when I am under too much stress.
So I made myself a guide.
And it has been incredibly helpful. So helpful, in fact, that I turned it into a document to share with others. Pull it out when you need it, or, use it as a template and brainstorm your own supports based on the symptoms you most regularly experience when you're under stress. So if you think it might be of benefit to you, you can download it here:
Figuring Out What You Need
The trick is to figure out how you tend to experience stress. Consider what happens to your thoughts. Do they race? Are the repetitive? Do you have trouble focusing? Then you can consider your emotional and physical symptoms as well. Do you experience low mood? Lack of patience? Fatigue? Inability to sit still? Insomnia? Once you've got an idea of your most common symptoms of stress, start to brainstorm a few things you can easily do to support yourself during those times. Then, write them out, and leave them somewhere you can easily access.
Whether you use my guide, or figure it out on your own, coming up with some healthy coping techniques that work for you is key. A few of my favourites are singing and dancing while I'm making dinner (low mood), regular exercise (body pain), affirmations (repetitive thoughts), and meditation (feeling disconnected from self/others). Here at Strong Soul, we offer a free, 30-minute Intro to Meditation session once a month. They run on the first Monday of every month at 7pm. This is a come-as-you-are class, with no fancy equipment, rules, or requirements. You can sign up for our next session below. Regardless of your experience with meditation, we’d love to have you.
Stress is a part of life. But what we do during those times of stress can make all the difference - not just to our mental health, but for our heart health, as well.
Always Cheering You On, Jenna xo
Photo By Kate Warren Photography
Heart and Stroke Foundation. (n.d.). Risk and prevention. www.heartandstroke.ca
Lao XQ, Liu X, Deng HB, Chan TC, Ho KF, Wang F, Vermeulen R, Tam T, Wong MC, Tse LA, Chang LY,
Yeoh EK. (2018). Sleep Quality, Sleep Duration, and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A
Prospective Cohort Study With 60,586 Adults. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 14(1), 109-117.
Heart and Stroke Foundation. (n.d.). Preventing heart disease. www.heartandstroke.ca
World Health Organization. (2021, June 11). Cardiovascular Diseases (CVD). www.who.int/news-
room/fact-sheets/details/cardiovascular-diseases-(cvds) Kulkarni, S., O'Farrell, I., Erasi, M., & Kochar, M. S. (1998). Stress and hypertension. WMJ : official
publication of the State Medical Society of Wisconsin, 97(11), 34–38.