Avoiding stress for a happier heart

  • This is how a broken heart can be such bad news
  • Try these handy tips to lower stress levels
  • An easy way to calm the jangling nerves we all suffer from

Today’s letter starts a little sombre but it gets better I promise…

A few weeks ago I read about a tragic real-life case of a broken heart.

It was a press release from an age concern group about a grandmother who was denied contact with her grandchildren. She was so heartbroken she took to her bed over the Christmas period.

On New Year’s Day she passed away.

There was no medical reason for this woman’s death. The hospital’s Comment was: “It was what she wanted”.

It reminded me of the story of legendary New Yorker editor William Maxwell. When his wife died he said to a colleague: “I’ve decided there’s not much reason to stick around, now that Emmy’s gone.”

He passed away a week later.

But surely this is just a romantic idea – the stuff of Victorian novels? I mean, you can’t possibly die from a broken heart… can you?

Well, apparently you can.

Sudden mental trauma can be seriously bad for your health, as a study in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed last year.

The stress hormones that can ‘stun’ your heart

A research team from Johns Hopkins University discovered that when you suffer emotional trauma, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood your bloodstream. Your heart rate quickens, your blood pressure rises and your muscles tense.

These stress hormones can actually become toxic to your heart, effectively ‘stunning’ it, causing chest pains, breathlessness and heart failure.

There have been previous studies of cardiovascular deaths across the world, in which major traumas cause an increase in heart attacks. For example, in the wake of major earthquakes in California, Japan, Armenia and Greece.

Other triggers can include being the victim of a serious crime, losing your home, having to face a large audience or suffering a serious job crisis.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, of the British Heart Foundation, told BBC online a few months back:

”The researchers have shed some new light… on a condition that is known to particularly affect older women – the sudden onset of what appears to be a classic heart attack following severe emotional stress.”

Now, I don’t want to worry you because most people fully recover from stress generated heart attacks because it’s a temporary spasm, not a long-term defect.

What’s more, I’ve got some ways you can guard against it.

See I told you that it wasn’t all bad news!

Try this Zen relaxation technique

The best way to guard against the effects of stress hormones is to take an hour out of your day to relax – every single day of the rest of your life!

By this I don’t mean watching the telly or doing the gardening. I mean serious relaxation using some tried and tested yoga relaxation and Zen meditation techniques.

They’re quite simple to follow.

  • Find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed. Make sure it’s in a pleasant room with no distractions. Sit cross-legged with your back straight and imagine a calm scene in your head – waves rolling onto a beach or a breeze rippling through a cornfield.
  • Begin to take deep breaths. Each time you exhale, feel your body relax further and further. Do this at least ten times.
  • Clench the muscles in your feet for 5 seconds, then consciously relax them. Do this with your calves, thighs, buttocks, stomach, chest… all the way up to your facial muscles. This works because by tensing your muscles you can relax them more effectively. This is called ‘progressive muscular relaxation’. Do this slowly over 10 minutes.
  • Now combine the two. Focus on steady, deep breathing – but also relax each part of your body in your mind, from your feet to your face. You don’t need to clench the muscles first this time, but count your breaths. Do this for 20 minutes

Don’t be tempted to lie down – you may fall asleep, which is not the point of the exercise.

And don’t worry about nasty thoughts intruding. This will happen at first. Let them come and go naturally and don’t dwell on them.

What you will do with this exercise is train your mind and body to manage the symptoms of emotional trauma, reducing the stress hormone levels in your heart. Soon you will find yourself slipping into relaxation mode whenever you wish.

Further help is at hand to as I was also contacted by a Good Life Letter reader who has developed her own range of videos to help us all achieve a relaxed and meditative state – Penny Moon, A Quiet Place (Thank you Penny)

Be aware that these techniques will take practice, so give them time to work. But I swear by them…

Live longer by being lazier

The team at John Hopkins University are not the only ones coming up with some interesting ideas about stress and health.

A book came out a few years ago called ‘The Joy of Laziness’, written by a Dr Peter Axt, a retired professor at Fulda University in Germany, and his daughter.

The Homer Simpson in me loves the idea of this book. It claims everybody has a certain amount of ‘life energy’ – enough to see you comfortably through your day to day life.

But modern life is creating a problem.

The demands of career, family, mortgages, debt and keeping up with the Jones’ causes a lot of us to live at too fast a pace.

This in turn causes you to use up too much energy, which produces high levels of stress hormones like cortisol.

So to combat this, the authors believe laziness can be used to help the body lower levels of cortisol and keep our hearts healthy.

Dr Axt told The Telegraph newspaper: “Laziness is also important for a healthy immune system because special immune-cells are stronger in times of relaxation than stress.”

They suggest gentle walking, proper relaxation, long lie-ins and as much laughter as you can muster (because laughter floods your body with serotonin, which relaxes you).

They have quite an unconventional view, but I like their style.

Too many people try to deal with their hectic lives by exercising like maniacs and over-socialising. Too much pressure is put on you to spend an hour in the gym, pumping iron and running on a treadmill.

The Good Life Letter is about taking it easier and becoming healthier at the same time. I don’t believe the two things have to be separate.

Try to relax more. And when you’ve finished relaxing, why not put the kettle on?

A chemical found in fresh teas could help protect you from heart attacks and strokes…something I told you about recently: Elephant Ivory Matcha Tea