Feeling Stressed? 7 Tips to Relieve Stress, Improve Your Health and Life
“If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.”
– George Burns (lived to 100 years)
One of my most gratifying patient encounters was with a patient who didn’t even have heart disease.
And our visit didn’t start out well.
George came all the way from Colorado to find answers to his problems. He had struggled with chest tightness and palpitations for over 2 years and things were getting worse. He’s had dozens of medical tests and seen several physicians, but no heart problems were found. George was particularly upset by one doctor who told him that it was all in his head.
George was desperate. He was tired of feeling bad and was even thinking of suicide if he didn’t find some relief.
“I just can’t take any more of this.”
I listened to his story and reviewed his test results and knew his problem wasn’t heart related. But how was I going to tell him? I mentioned the idea of visiting with a psychiatrist which he did not appreciate (“You think I’m crazy too.”), so I talked to him about something I had recently learned. I talked to him about stress management.
The Surprising Power of Stress on your Health
If sleep is the most under-recognized factor in good health, stress may be the most important. It is striking to me how often a new patient with symptoms of chest pain, palpitations or shortness of breath will say “I’ve been under a lot of stress lately, maybe that’s it?”.
Doctors recognize how influential stress is on our health and how we feel, but it is a factor that is hard to put a finger on, primarily because it is difficult to measure. The same stress event can have a dramatically different impact depending on the person.
The week before I met George, I attended a course on stress management. As a cardiologist I never had much interest in stress management; I had enough to worry about taking care of heart problems, but this course changed my mind. I learned a few “easy to adapt” ideas to relieve stress and improve the quality of life that made sense to me.
George wasn’t impressed with the idea at first, but he was willing to visit with one of my colleagues trained in stress management techniques.
About a month later, I got a message from George, saying “thank you for saving my life”. He had been practicing his new stress management skills and his chest tightness and palpitations were almost gone. Even better, he had found renewed optimism for life.
7 Tips to Better Manage Stress
1. Physical activity
· One of the most important things you can do when you’re stressed is exercise. Many research studies have proven that physical activity is an effective treatment for stress, anxiety and depression. Physical activity increases endorphins (which give a sense of euphoria and pain relief) and decreases the stress hormone cortisol (which can raise blood pressure and blood sugar as well as compromise immunity and impair memory).
· Have you ever had an overwhelming problem that proved to be more manageable after a good night’s sleep? I think we all have. Adequate sleep is critical to stress relief and good health. I can’t emphasize this enough, if you’re not sleeping well, you cannot feel your best.
· Being thankful is a surprisingly effective method to reframe our challenges and put things in perspective. It’s human nature to focus on our problems rather than our blessings. As little as 60 seconds a day (I do it first thing in the morning before I get out of bed) spent thinking about the things you are grateful for can be life altering.
· Resilience (also known as grit) is the ability to bounce back from negative events. Research has shown this to be an extremely valuable life skill. One such study found resilience to be the most predictive factor (more than test scores, class rank or physical aptitude) in identifying military academy student who would complete their grueling training regimen. Life will be full of challenges and problems. Resilience in times of adversity can determine if you manage stress or stress manages you.
5. Quiet the inner critic
· Our harshest and least fair critic is often ourselves. If that’s you, you can learn to redirect negative thoughts and the power of forgiving yourself. It will improve your self-esteem and lower your stress levels.
· Breathing exercises are surprisingly effective in managing stress. I refer patients for biofeedback training or to Dr. Andrew Weil’s breathing techniques to learn more about the proper strategy. There are also smart phone apps that can be helpful.
7. Be Social
· We live in an over-packed, “there’s never enough time” world. It is a challenge to spend the time necessary to foster and grow connections with others. Don’t cheat yourself; time spent building stronger social relationships improves your health, quality of life and stress levels.
For more information on stress management, I highly recommend Dr. Amit Sood's teachings.
In addition, many of my patients find relief through professional counseling or biofeedback therapies.
While stress may be unavoidable, the negative effects on your health are not.
The beat goes on,
R. Todd Hurst, MD, FASE, FACC