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Life Comes At You Fast: Three Ways to Prevent Stress from leading to a Broken Heart

Editorial note: This article first appeared in Inspired Life Health Centre's newsletter, for which I periodically write. It is being re-blogged here in recognition of April as #StressAwarenessMonth.

Did you know that it is possible to literally suffer from a broken heart? Stress-Induced Cardiomyopathy (or “Broken Heart Syndrome”) is an actual medical condition characterized by dysfunction of the heart muscle as a result of a release in stress hormones. Interestingly, this condition actually affects more women than men. What’s the cause? Broken Heart Syndrome is typically caused by intense emotional or physical stress. For example, it could be brought on by a bad breakup, financial or job loss, the death of a loved one, a car accident, or even an asthma attack (of course, this list is not exhaustive). Research revealed that women more commonly experienced emotional stress prior to its onset. This is a clear indication that our mental health can directly impact our physical health.

It’s a common refrain – “I’m busy”. In today’s society we have become so used to juggling different roles and managing competing demands, we even wear it as a badge of honour! But at the same time you may notice that as you apply your superhuman strength to running your home, your office and your errands, other important parts of your life feel like they’re falling apart. Your relationships are starting to feel strained and disconnected, you’re tired all the time but can barely sleep, you’re always “on” and on edge, and you feel like you’re always suffering from some physical ailment. It’s as if you don’t feel like you anymore, and more than that, you’ve resigned to thinking this is just how life is and it will never change. That thought alone can leave you feeling hopeless. And you know what – I get it. At one point I too have found myself moving mindlessly from one task to the next – checking and rechecking schedules, crossing off items on my to-do list, all while battling a cold for three straight months (yes, I know. I don’t think that’s normal or healthy either). But the truth is, if you’ve been feeling this way for a while, chances are you are stressed.

I can tell you that most clients that I’ve seen who have been dealing with anxiety, relationship conflicts, or depression have been able to identify multiple sources of stress in their day-to-day lives. Whether it’s an unhealthy relationship, financial problems, the work-environment – stress can leave us feeling emotionally (and physically) sick. So what do you do about it?

1) Acknowledge that you’re stressed

Pretty basic, right? It follows a simple principle – you can’t address a problem you don’t admit that you have. You may be inclined to tell yourself that this is just how things are – everyone is busy, after all. But that doesn’t mean that it’s emotionally healthy. If you find yourself experiencing some of the things I’ve mentioned before, those are your bright flashing warning signs that tell you to take the first step of fully admitting to yourself that you are stressed.

2) Identify the source of your stress

This is where you become a “forensic emotion investigator” and identify the things in your life that make you feel most overwhelmed. Is it your marriage? Could it be that you’re still grieving the passing of a close friend? Is it that toxic boss? Is it an experience from your past that still affects you to this day? A good way to figure it out is if it causes you to stay awake at night, or causes your heart to race every time you think about it – it may be a stress factor. Identifying the source of your stress will propel you to the third step.

3) Do something about it

Here is where we falter most times. Managing our stress is not something we prioritize. As a matter of fact, what we often do is adapt to it. The greater challenge here is that adapting leaves us vulnerable to increased mental and physical health risks. Emotional stress may be one risk factor of Broken Heart Syndrome, but leaving it unaddressed increases the risk in later years. To help reduce your stress you can:

  • Include recreation and self-care in your schedule (and don’t feel guilty about it!)

  • Have a strong support network of friends and/or family who will help you be accountable to addressing the causes of your stress, and maintaining a better-balanced lifestyle.

  • Talk to a professional about it. A therapist will be able to guide you through the complexity of your emotions and relationships to make you feel like yourself again.

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