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How you handle stress is more important than its frequency

Posted on 06-06-16 in Health and Wellness, Recovery, Stress

How you handle stress is more important than its frequency

Stress and negative emotions aren’t good for the health. It’s something most people understand, but precisely how these experiences damage the health isn’t fully understood. However, a new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that stress, when coupled with negative emotions, can create physical changes in the heart.

Stress and the heart

In order to examine the relationship between stress and heart rate variability, the research team from Penn State and Columbia University interviewed over 900 participants over eight days via phone, as well as analyzing results from electrocardiograms. Studies have shown low heart rate variability is associated with a higher risk of death in those with heart disease.

The participants were aged between 35 and 85 years old. During their interviews, the participants were asked to report any stressful events they experienced during the day and to rate how stressful the events were on a four-point scale, ranging from “not at all” to “very.” They were also asked about the negative emotions they may have felt.

On average, participants reported experiencing at least one period of stress 42 percent of the interview days, with the participants generally rating them as “somewhat” stressful, the second-highest rating. However, the researchers found the participants who reported many stressful events in their lives weren’t always those who had lower variability in heart rate. Rather, it was the participants who had a higher amount of negative emotions in addition to reporting stressful events.

“These results tell us that a person’s perceptions and emotional reactions to stressful events are more important than exposure to stress per se,” said study lead author Nancy L. Sin, Ph.D., to Penn State News.

Symptoms of stress – and how to fight it

Although some stress can be beneficial, in general it can also be harmful. The American Institute of Stress reports many mental and physical disorders are linked to stress, including heart attacks, strokes, anxiety and depression. Stress can actually cause physical pain by making the muscles tense up for long periods of time. Additionally, stress can affect digestion and even reproduction.

The American Psychological Association (APA) offers several tips for reducing stress, including:

  • Build and maintain relationships. Although relationships can certainly cause stress, strong relationships can actually help manage stress. Relatives and friends are sources of support and understanding.
  • When angry, walk away. Anger can make even calm, collected people do foolish things. A short break from a frustrating situation allows for time to find perspective on the situation. Additionally, exercise like a short walk can help burn off some steam.
  • Be well-rested. The APA’s Stress In America survey found more than 40 percent of adults lie awake at night due to stress. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sticking to a sleep schedule is one of many things that help a good night’s rest.
  • Keep track of emotions. Even something as simple as writing down what caused stress over a day can help a person keep track of stressors – and find strategies to deal with them.
  • Get help. Stress and anxiety can seem insurmountable, but they’re not. Therapists can help people manage the behaviors, habits and situations which contribute to stress.

The Sovereign Health Group understands the mental and physical risks that can come from stress and anxiety. It’s something no person should have to live with, whether the stress comes from the pressures of ordinary life, an untreated mental disorder or substance abuse. Our staff of compassionate experts treats patients as individuals, creating a tailored, effective treatment plan to ensure the best chance at a lasting recovery. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at