How to Protect Yourself from Stress

Feeling stressed? Manage it by using deep breathing techniques to redirect your attention and take a few, slow deep breaths.

By: Gretchen Diem, PhD; Women’s HeartCare

These days stress is almost a fact of life. It creeps into our lives in a variety of ways from angst-inducing news about natural disasters and economic woes to daily stressors like looming deadlines and icy roads.

The effects of stress may go beyond what you think.  Even though you might feel that you are dealing with your stress, it can still wreak havoc on your body.  Stress triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produce physiological changes in almost every organ system including your heart and blood vessels, immune system, lungs, digestive system, sensory organs and brain.

We’ve all experienced it —  a stressful incident that can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Our muscles tense, our stomachs churn and beads of sweat appear.  These changes occur automatically in response to stress.  It is estimated that our stress response is triggered 50 to 100 times per day. Over time, prolonged and repeated activation of the stress has been shown to adversely affect our health, both physical and emotional. Many well-respected studies link stress to heart disease, the number one cause of death of both men and women in the United States.

You may not be able to avoid stressful situations, but you can counteract the damaging effects of stress by calling upon your body’s unique potential for self-healing. The first step is recognizing the connection between your mind and your body. You can learn how to use your mind to elicit the exact opposite physiological response to the stress response — a calm, relaxed state called the relaxation response.

Harvard cardiologist, Dr. Herbert Benson, was the first to scientifically document that the relaxation response can reduce central nervous system activity by lowering blood pressure, decreasing muscle tension and lowering respiratory rate in addition to other beneficial physiological changes.  The relaxation response is not difficult to invoke.  It can be done anytime or anywhere by simply focusing your attention on the breath and slowing it down, breathing in for a count of 5 or 6 and breathing out for a count of 5 or 6.  Do this for as long as you have the time to do it.  Believe it or not, it does not take long for it to work and your physiology will start to shift in beneficial ways in just a matter of seconds.

So, if you believe the experts who estimate that your body is going to get revved up 50-100 times per day, then go ahead and turn on your relaxation response 50-100 times per day (by focusing on your breath and slowing it down) to buffer against the negative physiological effects of stress. No one will even know that you’re doing it!

Deep breathing as a stress management technique is not new, but perhaps you can now better redirect your attention and reduce stress by taking a few slow, deep breaths.  It’s pretty easy and it might just protect your heart and improve your health.  If you are interested in experiencing other ways to elicit the relaxation response, check out the recorded relaxation exercises at

Come enjoy a four-course Mediterranean dinner to learn about women and heart disease on February 20 at 6 p.m. Click here to learn more!

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