From before you are even born until the moment you die, your heart is working non-stop to keep you alive. The heart is your hardest working muscle. Like any muscle in the body, it needs to be cared for.
While many people think about their glutes or their abs, very few consider their overall heart health when scheduling their weekly fitness routine. However, if you want to stay healthy, taking care of your heart should be your top priority every day.
More than 200,000 women die each year from heart attacks — five times as many women as breast cancer. Heart disease remains the number one killer in women, yet most women believe it is a “man’s disease” and don’t think it could happen to them. Nearly one woman dies of heart disease every minute. Additionally, over 90% of women are at risk for developing a heart problem.
With such staggering statistics, women need to start taking control of their heart health. That’s why February is known as American Heart Health month. The American Heart Association started the nationally recognized initiative for women with their “Go Red” campaign. The campaign is a comprehensive platform designed to increase women’s heart health awareness, and serve as a catalyst for change.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease can’t be defined as or reduced to a single ailment. Rather, heart disease is known as an umbrella term that describes a range of conditions that affect your heart. Some common diseases under the umbrella include coronary artery disease, blood vessel diseases, and congenital heart defects.
As a woman, it is important to keep your eye out for any potential signs of heart disease. However, since the term is so broad, there are a range of symptoms to look out for. Some common symptoms include a racing or slow heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, numbness in your limbs, and pain in your neck or jaw.
If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to talk to seek medical attention and your doctor right away. No matter your age, you could be at risk for heart disease. If you tackle the problem right away, you can change course. If you ignore risk signs, your heart problem could worsen.
Preventing Heart Disease
Since we only have one heart, it is important to take care of it from a young age. However, no matter your age, it is never too late to start paying attention to your heart health.
Although adding healthy food to your diet will help your heart, the best way to keep the ol’ ticker in shape is by controlling your stress. Between work, family, and all the curveballs life throws your way, you are constantly battling stress.
Everyone reacts to stress differently. Nevertheless, it’s a universal truth — stress is harmful to your body. Excessive stress can lead to hypertension, ulcers, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Stress affects your body by setting off a chain of events. When you feel stressed, you naturally release fight or flight hormones. These hormones cause your heart to speed up, your blood pressure to rise, and your breathing pattern to alter.
In short bursts, this sensation can give you the energy you need to finish a project or ace a test. However, when these hormones stay in your system for days at a time, your body isn’t able to relax. Your heart is worked too hard for too long, which can cause irreversible damage. These hormones also keep you awake. When you sleep, your heart rate slows down. If you suffer from insomnia, you never receive the vital internal rest you need.
Thankfully, there are productive ways to control your stress and to give your heart the rest it needs. If you can control your stress, you drastically reduce your risk for heart disease.
Ways to Control Stress
Foster Mutually Supportive Relationships
It is difficult to overcome stress alone. When work is piling up or when you face a rocky path in your relationship, it is difficult to find your own way around the mountain. That’s why it’s important to have a support team to help you along the way.
Building mutually supportive relationships will make you feel happier and will help you manage your stress levels. However, like any great relationship, you need to commit time and energy to foster a beneficial friendship.
Your support group should be made up of people you trust and people who understand your unique stresses. This includes family members, coworkers, and close friends. Although these people should understand your situation, they do not have to have the same experiences as you.
When creating meaningful relationships, you should celebrate the differences between you and your friends. Not only will these differences provide you with rich conversations, they will give you alternative perspectives as you trek your rocky road. If you surround yourself only with people who make you feel “comfortable,” you will never grow as a person.
When forming deep relationships, you also need to remember this relationship is not just about you. You should take time to listen and understand the other person’s unique stresses. Sometimes listening is the best form of flattery. By showing genuine interest in another person, you can build an understanding relationship build on trust and support.
Not only should you listen intently, but you need to make time for your friends. Everyone is busy, but no one is too busy for a friend. Carve time out of your schedule at least once a month, if not more often, to show your friends you care. When you can’t meet in person, send them a text to remind them that you always have their back. The gesture will likely be reciprocated.
Get Regular Exercise
If you aren’t exercising already, it is essential that you add it to your weekly routine. You should be exercising at least two and a half hours every week. Not only will it keep your body healthy, but it will help you manage your stress.
When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins. These are natural feel-good hormones. You don’t have to work too hard for endorphins to be released. Running for 15 minutes every day will give you a “runner’s high,” which is basically a rush of endorphins. Other fun exercise activities like a game of soccer or nature hike can also give you that “natural high.”
If intense exercise isn’t in your wheelhouse, you can treat yourself to a relaxing form of exercise like yoga — although, anyone who practices yoga will tell you it is harder than it look. Relaxing exercises like yoga or water aerobics get your blood pumping while also putting your mind at ease. This calms your body down and can relieve tension from pent-up stress.
Regardless of the type of exercise you prefer, as long as you are active, you will see an improvement in your overall mood. As endorphins pump throughout your body, you will feel naturally happier every day. Furthermore, as you start to see improvements in your physique, you will have more self-confidence. All of this will lower your stress levels, and give you more control over your daily life.
When picking up a new workout routine, you want to start slow. The three best types of workout to control stress and benefit your heart are: aerobic exercise, resistance training, and flexibility workouts. Aerobic exercises, like jogging or swimming, will improve your circulation. Resistance training, like free weights, will lower your body fat and improve your muscles. Flexibility workouts, like yoga, will help you relax and free you from joint pain.
Take Time to Unplug
It’s no secret that we are living in one of the busiest societies of history. Between working overtime, rushing your kids to their extracurriculars, and keeping the house clean, there is no time to relax. When you finally get a moment to yourself, it’s likely filled with responsibilities hidden as “down time.”
If you want to control your stress, then you need to carve out time to unplug. This “you” time can be unique to your needs. Before your favorite Netflix show, take a walk and use a meditation app. Or, if you love making music, take time to play your favorite instrument. Mix it up with a hike, walk, Zumba class or something fun versus activities surrounding food that can interfere with your health goals.
As long as you are enjoying yourself and focusing on your needs, you are helping your heart. While physical health is important, mental health is just as vital to reducing stress.
Limit Intrusions in Your Daily Life
When taking time to unplug, it is essential that you cancel out all the noise in your life. This includes answering emails after work.
One of the best ways to control stress is by limiting the intrusions in your personal time. If you are off the clock, you don’t need to be answering your emails. Just like you leave your personal life at home, leave your work in the office.
When you turn off your emails and ignore the after-hours phone calls, you can be more present in your life. When was the last time you really checked in on your husband? When was the last time you sat down and played with your children?
When you are bombarded with intrusions, these simple pleasures can fall by the wayside. Life’s little moments should never be second for your attention. When you spend time face to face with the people you love, you can relieve that stress.
As mentioned before, supportive relationships are vital. You can’t be in a supportive relationship if your mind is always elsewhere. Focus on having a good time, not the deadline coming around the corner.
Although work is one of the biggest intrusions in our lives, it is not the only one. Social media can also be an intrusion during our precious home time.
While social media does have some positive aspects, it is also riddled with negative ones. It can make you feel inadequate if you compare your life to Instagram models. If you find your mind preoccupied with the life you lead on social media, it is time to rid yourself of that intrusion. Instead of worrying about going viral or having a popular tweet, you should log off of the computer and focus on what really matters.
Practice Relaxation Techniques
You should always try to find time for exercise and decompression. But if you are simply too busy and need to de-stress in a pinch, relaxation techniques can help calm you down.
The easiest and most common relaxation technique is focusing your breath. This can be done while at work, when driving in stressful traffic, or at home. Simply take long, slow deep breaths. As you breathe these deep belly breaths, you should gently start to disengage from your current stresses.
Breathing slowly will help you regulate your blood pressure and distract your mind from the stress of the day. However, if you have a respiratory ailment, this technique is not recommended for you.
If deep breathing alone is not enough, you can practice a body scan. This technique blends breath focus with muscle relaxation. To begin this technique, you should practice deep breathing. Once you have full control of your breath, focus on one tense part of your body at a time. As you breathe in, focus your energy on that tense spot. Then, as you breathe out, exhale the tension away.
When practicing a body scan, take as long as you need to ensure your full body is relaxed. This will help you feel less stressed, both physically and mentally. Many people who have trouble sleeping practice a body scan before bed, because it is so relaxing.
Another great form of mindful meditation is guided imagery. This is ideal for people who need to relax at work or in a busy space. For this technique, conjure up soothing scenes in your mind. If you need help with your imagination, listen to natural sounds, like ocean waves, to help you focus.
As you create these beautiful scenes, imagine how you would feel if you were there, instead of at work. Think of the sand between your toes, the sun gently kissing your face, and your loved ones surrounding you. This mental image can help you relax and control your stress.
Seek Professional Help
If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, you do not have to face it alone. Never feel embarrassed or scared to ask for professional help. You can utilize the Employee Assistance Program at work or seek out services on your own, but reach out.
One in four adults are dealing with issues affecting their mental health. Seeking professional help can make a huge difference. Professionals can help find the root of your stress, so you can better understand why you feel the way you do. Once a cause is identified, you can begin the road to improved mood or taking control of how you feel.
Sometimes, treatment involves medication — which is okay. If you have the flu, you may take medicine to get recover more quickly. The same principle stands when dealing with your mental health. Often, medicine is not required as treatment. Instead, a professional can teach you unique relaxation techniques to help you deal with daily stress or anxiety.
If stress is making you feel anxious, preventing you from getting sleep, or lowering your quality of life, it may also be hurting your heart. A professional can help you feel stronger in the face of challenges, so you will no longer be consumed by your stress. Together, you will build your confidence and heal from pains of your past.
It’s All About Your Heart
February is the month of love. Not just the love you spread on Valentine’s Day, but also love for your heart. By controlling your stress, you are protecting your heart by preventing heart disease.
Although heart disease is the number one killer in women, only one in five women believe heart disease is her greatest health threat. Although the threat to women is constantly rising, taking preventative steps can help prevent this deadly disease.
Studies show that healthy choices, such as eating right, exercising, and managing stress, have resulted in 330 fewer women dying from heart disease per day. That’s right — 330 fewer per day.
Talk to your doctor today about the steps you can take to lower your risk.
About Dr. Toni A. Haley
Toni A. Haley, MD is a bestselling author, speaker, and certified executive coach for high-performing women. She is also the founder and CEO of Williams Wellness Group. Dr. Haley is sought after by clients for her 25 years of experience in finance, healthcare, and wellness. Her proven strategies have helped hundreds of women break through personal and professional barriers, such as Perfectionism, Martyr Complex, and Imposter Syndrome. She is a proud alumna of Morgan State University and Ross University School of Medicine. Dr. Haley has committed her career to empowering women to achieve greater prosperity and wellness. Feel free to reach out to Dr. Toni with questions you may have or if you’d like to learn more about her speaking, coaching, or books.