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Stress Is Really a Four-Letter Word

By Christopher Leet, MD, FACC Emeritus

There is no simple answer to preventing cardiovascular disease, because it has multiple risk factors, including obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, smoking, sedentary lifestyle and stress. It is this last one that seems to get the least attention.

The problem with stress is that it affects different people differently. There is no blood test to show whether an individual has an elevated stress level. If you are working hard, but enjoy your job, stress is probably not a risk factor. People in difficulty are those who work hard and hate what they’re doing. The increased output of stress hormones produces higher blood pressure, restricted blood flow to the coronary and other arteries and, frequently, erratic heartbeats, leading to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Anxiety medications and mood stabilizers are available to help reduce stress. Indeed, these are one of the largest categories of pharmaceuticals on the market today. Unfortunately, they carry side effects, occasionally significant.

Lifestyle interventions may help reduce stress. Outdoor activities such as hiking and sports may burn off accumulated hormones. Other distracting activities, such as dancing and hobbies, may also help. However, many people find that even with these activities, they’re unable to block stress.

Recent data in prominent medical journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, have confirmed that successful meditation practice can result in reducing stress hormones and blood pressure. Meditation, which involves methods of training the mind to relax, is part of mind-body therapy, which has become popular.

The most popular form is called mindful meditation, also known as mindfulness meditation, popularized by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in Massachusetts. It involves focusing on a body function, such as breathing, and then concentrating on serially relaxing muscles. There are also forms of guided imagery, transcendental meditation and various related techniques.

Other methods to contribute to mind-body therapy include yoga, tai chi and therapeutic massage. The ideal is to combine one meditation form with yoga or similar exercises, usually available at various exercise facilities. Meditation recordings are available widely as well.

Manassas resident Dr. Christopher Leet, now retired,practiced medicine for nearly 40 years, specializing in cardiology and internal medicine.

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