Media reports describing “broken heart syndrome” often lump together two completely different conditions. One is stress cardiomyopathy, sometimes known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The other is myocardial infarction, better known as a heart attack. A huge sudden stress—like news that a loved one has died, experiencing an earthquake, or learning that your accountant has stolen all of your retirement savings—unleashes a torrent of stress hormones that can trigger one of those conditions. Stress cardiomyopathy is a weakening of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber. Over the course of a week or longer, the left ventricle tends to recover its pumping power. Heart attacks occur when something—usually a blood clot—blocks blood flow to part of the heart muscle.
Thirty-five years ago, Dr. Herbert Benson defined and tested the relaxation response. This simple method for quieting brain activity slows the body’s processes and induces a feeling of well-being. Both have measurably positive effects on disorders caused by stress or made worse by it, including high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, and many digestive disorders. In a recent lecture at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Benson described the technique and talked a crowd through it. Inducing the relaxation response is simple: Sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Relax your muscles and silently repeat a word, phrase, sound, or short prayer of your choosing over and over. When stray thoughts interfere (as they will), let them come and go and return to your word, phrase, or sound. Doing this daily can help ease stress.
Many people try to tune out stress. A healthier approach may be to tune in to it. Paying more attention to what is going on around you, not less, is the first step toward cultivating mindfulness, an excellent technique to help you cope with a range of mental and physical problems, including stress. Mindfulness teaches people to be present in each moment. The idea is to focus attention on what is happening now and accepting it without judgment. Mindfulness techniques have been shown to ease stress, prevent major depression from reappearing, alleviate anxiety, and even reduce physical symptoms such as pain or hot flashes.
One of the newest therapists at Harvard Medical School is Cooper, a 4-year-old Shih-Tzu who recently joined the school’s Countway Library as a registered therapy dog. From the confines of his very own office, Cooper is on duty at the Countway to help students, staff, and faculty members who need a little mid-day stress relief. They can spend up to 30 minutes at a time with Cooper by showing their ID at the reference desk. Before becoming a therapy dog, Cooper underwent training with an organization called Caring Canines, where he works when he’s not at Harvard. Studies going back to the early 1980s support the idea that dogs—and other pets—have enormous health benefits for people.
Feeling tired? If so, it’s not surprising. Fatigue is one of the most common problems people report to their doctors. But fatigue is a symptom, not a disease. Different people experience it in different ways. The tiredness you feel at the end of a long day or after a time zone change might feel similar to that resulting from an illness. Fatigue from stress or lack of sleep usually subsides after a good night’s rest, while disease-related lethargy is more persistent and may be debilitating even after restful sleep. Either way, you don’t have to live with it. You can find out what is causing you to feel tired and discover what you can do to renew your energy levels.
Feeling stressed? Call a timeout, counsels “Stress Management,” a new Special Health Report from Harvard Health Publications. One way to stop stress and worry from taking over your days involves setting aside 15 minutes or so to focus on your problems. When the time is up, try to leave your worries aside and focus on something more productive. Writing down your worries and dropping them in a “worry box” can also help, explains Harvard Health editor Annmarie Dadoly.
Mindfulness meditation can ease stress. It also seems to do a lot more, like help with physical and psychological problems from high blood pressure and chronic pain to anxiety and binge eating. New research shows that mindfulness meditation changes the way nerves connect.
• LINK TO VIDEO • In early March, I had the privilege of participating in a seminar on stress at Harvard Medical School. The talk was part of a free series called the Longwood Seminars which covers common medical topics. Although I was asked to talk about stress and the heart, I devoted most of […]
Headaches that appear every day can take over your life. An editor at Harvard Health Publications, who prefers to go by the name CJ for this post, tells what it’s like to live with migraine every day and offers tips for coping with the worst.
The American Psychological Association has just released the results of its 2010 Stress in America survey. Among the findings: Nearly 75% of Americans who responded to an online survey said that their stress levels are so high that they feel unhealthy. To put it mildly, we are living in stressful times. The economy is still […]