How to protect your heart during stress
The recent deaths of Hollywood mother and daughter Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher just one day apart spotlight the powerful connections between the body and soul. Overcome with grief after Fisher died from a heart attack, Reynolds had a stroke after telling her son Todd that she wanted to be with Carrie. The two famous women shared a close bond, and the stress of Fisher’s passing was apparently too much for Reynolds to bear. Just like longtime married couples who pass away close together, this mother-daughter duo also showed how powerfully the emotional can affect the physical. While Reynolds had a stroke, others who are dealing with emotional stress may suffer a medical condition called broken heart syndrome, in which a surge of stress hormones can cause heart enlargement and damage.
“It’s horrible, it’s beautiful, it’s magical they are together; it’s beyond words,” Todd Fisher said in a television interview about the deaths of his mother and sister. “It’s beyond understanding.”
Part of the mystery surrounding the effect of stress on our hearts is the fact that we can’t see what’s going on inside our bodies when we go through stress. But we can measure the electromagnetic energy that our hearts and brains both emit through magnetic fields. That energy vibrates to frequencies that reflect the current state of our health — both body and soul. We can sense and respond to those vibrations from others, as well.
I used to struggle with anxiety before learning techniques for overcoming it (turning worries into prayers and practicing mindfulness meditation). Every time anxious emotions flooded my mind, my heart began racing wildly. Sometimes my heart would beat so fast that I had to sit down and breathe deeply to try to avoid fainting. One of the last conversations I had with my mother before she passed away involved her cautioning me about getting too stressed about her illness. “Relax, Whitney,” she told me. “Stress will hurt your heart.”
Finally, I’ve come to understand how important it is for all of us to protect our hearts from the damage by managing our stress well. We can’t prevent stressful circumstances from entering our lives, but we can choose how to respond to those situations carefully. Here are some basic ways we can do so:
Stay connected to a strong support system: When stress shocks our systems, loving relationships with God and other people act as shock absorbers. They give us the guidance we need to see the crisis from a clear perspective and navigate through it wisely. They also give us the support and encouragement we need to remain confident. Keep communicating with God through prayer and with loving people through conversations.
Express thoughts and emotions freely. Rather than denying or suppressing difficult things we think or feel, we can let them out so they don’t build up in our systems. Instead of numbing ourselves against the pain of uncomfortable thoughts and emotions (through addictions or other forms of escapism), we can face them and learn from them. We can find whatever method of expression works best for us: writing in a journal, talking to a trusted friend, reflecting on what’s on our minds while walking or running, or something else that helps us release challenging thoughts and emotions.
Make time for nurturing activities. Building our resilience by taking good care of ourselves on a regular basis will help us deal with the stress of crises when they occur. We can do that by getting enough sleep and exercise, eating well, and doing what we most enjoy whenever we can — from listening to music to taking trips.
Our hearts are sensitive organs that do much more than just pump blood through our bodies. They reflect what’s happening in our souls. So let’s pay attention, and respond to what they tell us with as much love and wisdom as we can.
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.