A researcher’s advice on stress

These are stressful times but handling it well can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Dr. Norbert Schmitz Researcher and professor at McGill University

It’s no secret that stress can damage your heart health. Sudden stress increases your short-term risk of heart attack; when it’s prolonged it can raise your blood pressure and cholesterol levels — both risk factors for heart disease and stroke. 

Dr. Norbert Schmitz, a professor at McGill University whose research has been funded by Heart & Stroke donors, oversees a laboratory focusing on mental health and psychiatric epidemiology (the study of mental and behavioural disorders across populations). 

He says stress is the response you feel when a situation or demands become too much to handle.

When stress is acute — say you’re being chased by a bear — you experience a cascade of hormones that prepare your body for a fight or flight response. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase; you’re more alert and more aware of your surroundings; you might start to sweat.

Two sides of stress

This stress response helps you survive, says Dr. Sonya Deschênes, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Schmitz’s lab. “You’re able to mobilize energy and react appropriately in situations that could be dangerous.”

After the threat is gone, however, your body needs to return to its balanced state. Over time, as you go through acute stress repeatedly, your body does not fully recover, Dr. Deschênes says. 

The result can be chronic stress, as your body stays in a heightened state of physiological functioning.  

Dr. Schmitz says managing stress is an important way to reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke. You can’t avoid all stressful situations, but you can start by identifying the factors that are stressing you out and finding ways to address them.

Sleep is key

Sleep is one of the most important factors in determining how stress affects you.

“It recharges you and equips you to better handle situations,” says Dr. Deschênes.

Drs. Deschênes and Schmitz currently research the relationship between poor sleep and mental health, and how these influence heart disease.

“Poor sleep is linked to conditions such as diabetes or depression,” says Dr. Schmitz. It also plays a role in heart and brain health.

Tips to help get the right amount of sleep include setting a sleep schedule, ensuring your bedroom is dark and quiet, and finding ways to relax your mind such as a bedtime ritual or meditation.

Practical Tips On Healthy Sleep

Sleep hygiene: How to get a better sleep

Set up a sleep schedule

  • Plan to sleep seven to nine hours every night.
  • Have a regular bedtime and get up at the same time every day.
  • If you have trouble sleeping at night, do not make up for it with naps or sleeping in.

Control your sleep environment

  • Keep your bedroom dark and silent.
  • Make sure that the temperature, bed and bedding (sheets and blankets) are comfortable.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex (no work, TV or video games).
  • Set up a sleep routine (the things you do every night to get ready for bed)
  • Have a calming routine before you go to bed.
  • Do things that relax you at least one hour before bedtime, outside of your bedroom. These may be meditation, relaxation, yoga, reading or a calm conversation.
  • Go to bed only once you are sleepy. Get up if you do not fall asleep within 20 minutes and do something that calms you in another room until you are ready to sleep.
  • Do not use substances or do anything in the evening that can damage your sleep
  • No food or drinks with caffeine: it is a drug that keeps people awake. It can take four to six hours before it is out of your blood stream.
  • No smoking (nicotine).
  • No alcohol or drugs: they damage the quality of your sleep and make you wake up before you are rested.
  • No physical activity for a few hours before sleep: it can wake you up.
  • Be around natural light during the day. Don’t look at the computer, television or electronic tablet screens a few hours before going to bed. The type of light they use stops our natural sleep hormone (melatonin) from working properly.

The Power of Movement

Getting physical is one of the best ways to manage stress levels. Exercise, even in your living room, will improve your mental health and tire you out in a healthy way, which in turn can improve your ability to sleep and recharge. Dr. Deschênes finds it refreshing to break away from work occasionally for a 20-minute walk. “Getting some sunshine and exercise really helps me refocus.” 

Avoid Quick Fixes

“A stressed out person may try to cope by smoking or consuming alcohol,” says Dr. Schmitz. Heavy drinking and binge drinking can raise your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke; the same is true of smoking. 

“We know these are mechanisms that aren’t good for our health,” Dr. Schmitz adds. “Just be aware and try to manage them.”

Think About What Your Eat

If stress typically makes you reach for chocolate or French fries, you’re more likely to feel worse than better. Plus, overeating can lead to extra pounds as well as increased cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

Eating a healthy diet made up mostly of whole or natural foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains and proteins will promote mental and physical wellbeing. 

Share Your Feelings

Call on members of your support network. Though it may feel difficult to open up about what’s stressing you, talking to family, friends or coworkers can help you feel better. You will realize you’re not coping alone.