How to Protect Your Heart From Stress
Okay, mamas. We need to talk about something important today. It’s not fun and it’s not pretty, but it’s The Heart Truth®. Did you know that heart disease is the #1 cause of death for women? In 2013, one in four women in the US died of heart disease. Now, I know that we tend to think of heart disease as being a men’s health issue. My own father’s heart disease was caught early on, thankfully, but it wasn’t until I started experiencing issues with my heart that I woke up to the fact that I might also struggle with heart disease if I didn’t start down the path of prevention. Eighty percent of women between the ages of 40 and 60 have one or more risk factors for heart disease. Risk factors include:
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
- Diabetes and prediabetes
- Being overweight or obese (BMI of 25 or greater)
- Being physically inactive (less than 2.5 hours of physical activity per week)
- Having a family history of early heart disease
- Having a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy
- Unhealthy eating
- Age (55 or older for women)
The Heart Truth is raising awareness about heart disease and its risk factors among women. They (and I) want to educate you and motivate you to take action to prevent the disease and to control your own personal risk.
My Personal Experience With Heart Issues
One risk factor I don’t think we talk about enough is stress. I was blind to the ripple effect of stress and how it was causing problems with my heart.
Here’s my story: I was just past my 31st birthday when I began to experience heart palpitations, chest pain and anxiety so bad that I felt as if I was being run by an internal motor that never turned off. I wasn’t sleeping well and I wasn’t eating well.
I had other symptoms, as well, and I finally took time for myself and went to the doctor. He discovered that my blood pressure reading put me firmly in Stage 1 Hypertension and I was clinically obese. He looked me in the eye and said, “People our age shouldn’t have blood pressure that high. What’s going on in your life that has you so stressed out?”
And, I sat there with nothing to say. I had no idea. I knew I was busy and that my life wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t realize I was stressed. I was a therapist, after all! I knew what stress looked like and compared to my clients, my life was a piece of cake.
I took some time to really think about it and I realized that I had spent my 20s dealing with a tough breakup with an ex-fiance, moving past a sexual assault attempt from someone I trusted like a father, losing friends after my breakup, adjusting to marriage with my husband, moving past a miscarriage, having three babies close together, parenting two high-needs baby and an easy baby who turned into a high-need toddler, finishing my college degree, working on my masters, starting a career as a therapist, homeschooling, dealing with my husband’s job loss, and most recently, dealing with the near-loss of my mother-in-law from undiagnosed diabetes.
Whew! It’s no wonder I could never relax. There was nothing relaxing about my life. In fact, I had chronic stress. I was relying more and more on pre-packaged convenience foods to get dinner on the table and I had a standing date with a can of soda and a sugary treat every evening in front of the TV to try to zone out enough to go to bed (where I wasn’t sleeping well while adjusting to my husband’s new 3rd-shift, 7-days-per-week job.)
I began taking medication to help with my blood pressure and I immediately began to change my lifestyle into a healthier one. I recognized that stress had triggered many unhealthy habits that raised my risk of heart disease.
- I was eating a heavily processed diet (I thought I was too busy to cook from scratch.)
- Lack of activity (I was too busy to exercise and also unmotivated.)
- Constantly worrying about the next upsetting thing that might happen. (I felt like most days were difficult, but had resigned myself to believing life was just like that.)
- I was angry toward the people who had hurt me. (I encouraged my clients to forgive, but I couldn’t do it myself.)
- I was busy taking care of everyone in my life and rarely did anything just for me. (Sound familiar, moms?)
I began working to change my lifestyle, eating habits and emotional state and within six months I was able to wean from the medication. I lost 50 pounds, as well.
My #FromTheHeart Advice: 5 Ways to Protect Your Heart From Stress
My life didn’t change overnight, but I began taking steps toward a better, healthy life. Those individual changes have added up and now I’m healthier and less stressed than ever. This is my #FromTheHeart advice for protecting your heart from heart disease. Be sure to discuss these healthy lifestyle changes with your doctor.
Eat a Real Food Diet
It’s no secret that I’m an advocate of a real food diet. Processed food sneaks into our diets in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. I strive to keep my family eating an 80/20 diet, which means for us that what we eat at home (at least 80% of our diet) is unprocessed real food, usually from scratch. When we are out and about, we don’t fret over less-than-ideal food choices because we know it’s only a small portion of our diet.
Be Physically Active
I admit that this is one I struggle with. I’ve found the key to being physically active is to find an activity that you love, schedule it into your day and have an accountability partner who will help you keep your promise to your heart to be active.
Practicing mindfulness helps me to stay in the moment, especially on stressful days. Life isn’t perfect, ladies, and we’re going to experience stress. It’s how we react to that stress that makes the difference in our health. Check out my three daily mindfulness practices that I use to keep myself in the moment.
Forgiveness is powerful. The most important thing you should know about forgiveness is that forgiveness is not about the person you are forgiving. Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself. The goal of forgiveness is not to dismiss what another person did to hurt you. It’s all about helping you to move on toward health and happiness.
Take Care of Your Own Needs
I know you’ve heard it before – you have to put on your own air mask first or you can’t help anyone. But how often do we really do this? Women – and moms especially – are prone to putting everyone’s needs before their own. There is nothing wrong or selfish about taking care of yourself. In fact, if you really care about those you love, you’ll start taking care of your own needs immediately.
Give the Gift of Heart Health
This February, I’m giving the gift of heart health to my family by continuing to follow a healthy, real food, active, stress-managed lifestyle. Also, sharing my personal story in this post was both my gift to you and a therapeutic gift to myself. No matter where you are in life and what you’re facing, you can make small changes to put yourself on a path to heart health.
Learn More About Preventing Heart Disease
Visit The Heart Truth website to learn more about your risk factors for heart disease, read the latest research on heart disease and prevent and more.