Stress and Your Heart

While many of us know that relaxation is good for our minds and bodies, and living with high stress levels contributes to illness, and disease, concepts like “relaxation” and “stress” often feel abstract and hard to manage in our daily lives. Learning about cortisol, “the stress-hormone” and oxytocin, “the anti-stress hormone,” also known as “the bonding hormone” can help us understand what happens in our bodies and minds when we experience stress, and when we do self-care activities that help us to relax and reduce stress.

When we experience long-term stress*, our bodies generate cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol makes us hypervigilant, and mobilized to cope with stress and emergencies. Living with high levels of cortisol leads to many health problems, including heart health problems.

*Long-term stress is defined as stress that lasts for 15 minutes or longer.

Possible sources of long-term stress:

* disliking your job, boss or co-workers

* daily commuting in traffic

* unfulfilling, disconnected or abusive relationships

* loneliness, lack of friends

* disease or chronic pain

* fear of crime or illness

* debt or fear of having enough money for college tuition or retirement

Sadly, these are very common experiences for many of us in today’s world. Experiencing long-term stress from multiple sources increases the amount of cortisol we generate in our bodies.

Health impact of high cortisol levels:

* high blood pressure

* clogged arteries

* heart disease

* depression

* weakened immune system

* diabetes

* obesity

* osteoporosis

Fortunately, oxytocin has been found to be an anti-stress hormone that counters the effect of cortisol. Oxytocin is best known for its role in inducing emotional bonding and lactation when a woman gives birth to a baby. To reduce stress, and improve your heart health, you can engage in activities which generate oxytocin.

Oxytocin-generating activities:

* taking time for daily meditation

* getting emotional support by talking with a friend or loved one

* getting a massage for nurturing touch

* petting or playing with your cat or dog

* going to church, temple or doing your own spiritual practice

* joining a support group

* exercise

* mind-body practices

All of these activities are part of a good self-care program. Most of them feel good while we are doing them, in addition to improving our body chemistry as a result of doing them.

Health impact of oxytocin:

* counteracts the effects of cortisol

* increased sense of calm and connection

* lower blood pressure

* protects against heart disease

* faster wound healing

* lessens cravings and addictions

* diminishes sense of pain

To take better care of your heart, see if you can reduce the stress factors in your life, and if you can increase your self-care activities.

©2007 Linda Marks