The term “stress” as it is used today was first coined by the endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1936. In his original definition Selye described stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” Since then, the word has been used in many different contexts to describe a range of experiences, many of them negative. We now know that sometimes stress can be a good thing. Turning on this stress response can give us the boost we need to become more productive and can improve performance, and our stress response can also be turned on because of positive events, such as buying a home or getting a new job. We also now know that the body’s stress response is something that affects all systems in the body, from the cardiovascular to the immune system and that although our bodies can adapt to short term stress, chronic or excessive stress can have negative effects on both physical and psychological health.
Stress can affect physical and psychological health both directly through the effects of an overactive stress response, and indirectly through the unhealthy coping behaviors we may engage in to deal with stress such as smoking or overeating. When we experience stress this turns on our stress response, also known as the “fight or flight response”, which essentially readies our bodies to either flee or fight a predator. This means that energy is diverted away from body systems that take care of longer term functions such as digestion, and is funneled to the systems that are needed in the moment such as the muscles of the arms and legs, to bring the energy necessary to either fight back or run like the wind. Although it is less common to experience a lion ready to make you his dinner on your walk home from the subway, we still experience stress in response to different predators be it rent payments, having a child go off to college or marital difficulties. When our stress response stays on for too long or is turned on too often this can cause problems in the body systems that are being pushed too hard and in those systems that are being slowed down. In terms of mental health, stress can lead to depression in those susceptible to depression. In terms of the cardiovascular system, these problems can lead to heart disease and an increased risk of heart attack. It is important to note that although heart attacks are commonly associated with men, heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States and about the same number of men and women die from heart disease every year. The symptoms of a heart attack can be different in men and women so it is important for women to know the symptoms they should look out for. It is also important to note that women may be more likely to develop depression in response to stress than men, making stress management a particularly important matter for women.
So, what’s a stressed out New Yorker to do? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is based on the premise that thoughts, feelings and actions are connected. So if you are feeling stressed, knowing what factors are contributing to your stress and changing the things you do about it as well as the way you think about it can be helpful in reducing its harmful effects on your mind and body.
There are many different coping skills that can be placed into a heart healthy stress reduction toolkit such as:
- Getting an adequate amount of sleep
- Eating healthy foods
- Having an appropriate outlet for frustration (some options are exercise or writing in a journal)
- Social Support
- Positive self-talk
- Relaxation Exercises
- Engaging in enjoyable activities
Another important element in stress reduction for heart health is replacing unhealthy coping skills such as smoking or overeating with heart healthy coping skills such as those mentioned above. This can be very difficult to do alone and a psychologist can help with this important change in behavior. A psychologist can also be helpful in working with people struggling with depression to feel more mentally and physically healthy.
Managing stress effectively can be difficult as thought and behavior patterns are not always easy to change. A psychologist can help to identify behavior patterns that may be contributing to increased stress and provide the cognitive and behavioral tools to decrease stress levels and improve psychological and heart health.
Written by Joshua Rosenthal, PsyD