The latest, must-know news about your heart: Feeling stressed-out too often raises your risk for deadly ticker trouble by a whopping 27 percent. That makes chronic tension as dangerous as smoking about two packs of cigarettes a week or having a 50-point spike in your LDL (lousy) cholesterol level.
That's the bottom line from a powerful new review of six heart-stress studies involving nearly 120,000 women and men.
The results are so dramatic that we think they shouldn't be overlooked by anyone who feels too tense, too often. That includes you if you're among the one in four Americans who say they're living with extreme stress or if you're among the 39 percent who confess that their stress level has risen in the past couple of years.
What's so damaging about stress? Plenty. It stimulates the release of adrenal hormones that cause high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar. That encourages overeating and deposits of risky belly fat. When that happens, you end up with plaque deposits clogging your arteries, making you vulnerable to heart attack, stroke, impotence and wrinkles, and decreasing your ability to fight off cancer and infections.
And even if you avoid weight gain and keep exercising, you can't avoid chronic stress's damage: It flips switches on your genes that boost levels of a brain chemical called neuropeptide Y. That encourages storage of fat deep in your abdomen, where it raises your risk for diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer, and sparks release of proteins that boost bodywide inflammation, which is another ticker threat.
Stress also erodes the caps on the ends of every strand of DNA in your body, and that can shorten your life by more than 10 years!
Mighty sobering. So is the news that up to 80 percent of doctor visits are for signs of stress-related health problems, yet docs offer stress-reducing solutions just 2 percent of the time. That means it's up to you to take the lead by adopting these techniques that boost resilience and dial down stress:
No. 1: Face your fears and find solutions.
Take a look at the tension-boosting problems in your life. Determine which ones you have the power to improve. Pick one and start making small changes. “Realistic optimism” is a stress-reducing, resilience-enhancing skill practiced by people, such as Navy SEALS, who thrive in high-stress situations. So is flexible thinking; so if one solution doesn't work, try another.
Even if you can't eliminate a big stressor, such as a chronic illness or divorce, look for other ways to gain control of your life and stress by carving out time for things that are important to you (like No. 2 and No. 3, below). Or create a “me space” in your home where you can relax with a hobby that lets you experience “flow,” a deep focus that helps you temporarily forget about everyday cares.
No. 2: Invest in your social network.
Make time to talk with friends or get away for an afternoon of fun: museum-hopping, fishing or whatever floats your boat! Put together a group of supportive friends and family members you interact with regularly.
No. 3: Get up and move every day.
Regular activity is as effective as antidepressants for the mild to moderate depression that stress can trigger. It also releases nerve growth factors that protect a brain region called the hippocampus from stress-induced shrinkage. That's important, because the hippocampus is part of a system in the brain that helps you have a calm response to stress. Exercise shields the caps on your DNA from the ravages of stress, too.
No. 4: Make time for meditation, yoga or being quiet.
Focusing on one thing (your breathing, a special word, how your body feels in Downward-Facing Dog) slows the nervous system. You'll feel more in control, less distressed and you get that deep-down ahhh! feeling of serenity. That eases blood pressure and slows your heart rate, giving your hardworking ticker the break it deserves.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer and chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, visit sharecare.com.