Hello. I hope you are having a good week. Welcome to my second article on stress. Hopefully you found my previous article helpful in better understanding why the stress hormone is released in our bodies. Learning about stress is the first step in reducing stress. It is not as alarming when we know what is happening in our bodies and why. Today we are going to learn in more detail exactly what happens to our heart when the stress hormone is released. Then we are going to explore what we can do to specifically counteract it’s negative effects on the body.
We will look at more areas of the body in subsequent weeks but today we are going to start with the heart. Why the heart? Because it is the centre of our being. A beating heart means we are alive. It is so important to us because we can feel it beating within us. When we are scared it beats faster. When we are excited it beats faster. When we are relaxed and content it beats at a relaxed and happy pace. When we are in a deep sleep it beats slower. Our heart rate changes with the needs of our bodies and minds. It is a powerful muscle and pumps blood to parts of our body at the speed and volume that is needed.
Heart during stress
In the previous article on stress we discovered that stress signals a threat to the brain. The brain then goes into Flight or Fight response. Adrenaline is released. This makes the heart beat faster and pumps blood to our limbs requiring energy – our legs, feet arms and hands. This surge of extra blood is normally stored in the core of our bodies, to keep our vital organs warm. The heart pumps blood away from the vital organs so our bodies are at optimum state to deal with the threat. Remember, this reposes to threat is intended to be a short response to danger that will be turned off when we are safe. We need the energy in our legs and arms to protect ourselves from danger. We are now able to run faster and we are stronger. Have you ever heard of the amazing stories of people lifting cars to save people trapped in a crash having never been able to lift a car before? The adrenaline in our bodies helps us do things that we would not think possible in order to help us survive.
As we know, when we are stressed the danger is often not physical. For example the threat of losing our jobs and no longer being able to provide for ourselves or family. Our bodies react in the exactly the same way as if we just fell into a lion’s pit. Threat is detected and the brain signals to the body to go into survival mode. Our heart rate starts racing, pumping blood to our limbs but there is nothing to fight and no where to run to. This can feel very strong and very scary when you don’t know what is happening to your body. Many people have thought they were experiencing a heart attack. There is a high percentage of cases when an ambulance has been called out for suspected heart attack and in fact been the stress response. Our heart can feel painful when stressed due to working hard and fast for an extended period of time. Thankfully stress is not life threatening, however it can be detrimental to our health in the long term. People experiencing stress often have high blood pressure, which absolutely makes sense considering our heart is beating at a faster rate than normal rate and blood is pumping round our body at higher volume than normal. It is linked to heart disease due to pressure put on the heart for prolonged periods when the body is in threat mode.
So what can we do to reduce our heart rate under stress?
Firstly we can recognise that we are stressed and the feelings we are feeling in our bodies are a natural response to threat. We can say to ourselves, “It is okay, this is what my body should be doing. It feels in danger and it is trying to protect me” Now as helpful as it is to survive we don’t need blood pumping to our limbs to protect us from losing our job and not being able to provide for ourselves or our families. So we need to override this response by helping our body and mind feel safe.
One way of doing this is to reduce our heart rate. We can reduce our heart rate by slowing down our breathing rate. Here is a short easy way of slowing down our breathing. Try this exercise now. And then take a few seconds to reflect on how you feel. You can do this exercise any time you notice that you are feeling stressed. It just takes a few moments and can be done as often as you like during the day.
Simple breathing exercise – takes less than 60 seconds:
If you are able to stop what you are doing and close your eyes and focus on your breath. You can do this eyes open at anytime as well. I encourage you to do this many times a day every day.
Make each breath long by breathing in three times before breathing out three times.
Whilst breathing in say in your mind “breath” “ing” “in” then whilst breathing out say in your mind “breath” “ing” “out”.
Keep a steady pace finding a rhythm that feels comfortable for you. Try not to hold your breath at any point.
Repeat…. until you are ready to open your eyes/continue on with your day.
I hope you have found this article helpful in better understanding stress and the heart. Next time we will continue with stress and the body and I will describe further exercises in how to reduce the stress response. I hope you have a good week. Remember to breath whenever you have the chance: Breath-ing in and breath-ing-out. Connecting with the breath is so simple and hopefully you will agree so effective in helping us feel safe and calm.