How to Live with an Open Heart in Times of Stress
You want to live with an open heart, but sometimes life gets in the way. When stress comes, that trusting, courageous part of yourself can shut down.
Picture this scenario: You face a stressful situation. Your heart races. Your hands shake. Your stomach tightens. As you feel that stress response kick in, panic rises. It feels like your body is working against you. Sound familiar?
Fortunately, there is a simple shift that can help you to open your heart and heal your body.
How to Heal Your Heart by Opening It
You can actually heal your heart by opening it. Amazing, right?
When you see stress as a threat, your cardiovascular system literally tightens. Your blood vessels constrict and inflammation increases. It’s a biological carryover from times when humans faced more physical threats. It’s great news if you are in danger of bleeding out because it reduces potential blood loss. But walking around that way all the time raises your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
However, when you change your mindset and approach stress as a challenge, your heart literally opens. Your blood vessels expand. They start to function in the same way they would during exercise. Or during times of courage and joy.
And that’s just the beginning of what scientists are learning about your mind-body connection.
Open Your Heart, Heal Your Whole Body
It’s not so much what happens to you, but how you think about it.
Let that sink in. Those aren’t just empty, feel-good words.
Scientists have discovered ways to demonstrate that principle biologically.
The particular cocktail of stress hormones your body produces in response to a challenging situation actually changes according to your mindset. And the hormones circulating in your body impact everything else about your health.
Research says people who view stress in a positive way have higher levels of DHEA. This hormone is associated with improved memory and mood, and with the ability to bounce back from stress. They also have healthier cortisol levels than people who view stress as a threat. Chronically high levels of cortisol are associated with a whole range of problems, including:
o Thyroid problems
o Sleep problems
o Intestinal problems
o Weight gain
o High blood pressure
o Hormone imbalances
o Sexual dysfunction
Change your mind, impact your entire body. And it isn’t hard to make the mental shift.
Researcher Ali Crum had volunteers watch either a short video about the dangers of stress or a video about the benefits of stress. The volunteers then went through a mock job interview designed to be stressful. Afterward, she compared hormone levels in their saliva. Those who watched the stress-is-positive video had less cortisol and more DHEA than those who watched a stress-is-harmful video.
Can you say self-fulfilling prophecy?
The bottom line: you can build your ability to thrive and grow from life’s challenges just by how you think about them.
How to Grow from Life’s Challenges
As you go through your normal day, notice your physical and mental reactions to the stresses you encounter. What happens when a challenging situation arises? As you feel your body’s stress response kick in, do you panic or shut down in response?
If you find yourself thinking things like: Oh no, everyone is going to see my hands shaking. I can’t do this! My heart is beating so quickly I might pass out! you will experience more of the negatives associated with stress, things like increased risk of infection and worsened chronic illness.
Try a different response. Instead, open your heart to the benefits of stress. Stress gives you energy, motivates you, and boosts your immune system and your memory. Tell yourself, My body is giving me the energy I need to handle this situation. I am rising to the challenge.
When you do, your body will believe you.
How to Help Yourself by Helping Others
There is another response to stress besides fight-or-flight. Researchers call it tend-and-befriend. You’ve probably experienced it.
In times of stress, people don’t always become defensive, as in a fight-or-flight response. Sometimes they become extra brave and protective of loved ones.
Researchers say that tend-and-befriend response reduces the risk of physical and mental health problems. In one study, people experiencing high levels of stress had a significantly increased risk of dying. The exception was those who spent time caring for others. They didn’t experience any increased risk of death, even under stressful circumstances.
When you open your heart to others, you heal yourself.
According to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, when you spend time caring for other people, you activate the brain systems associated with hope and courage. There is a cascading effect on the hormones and neurotransmitters that impact every other system in your body. And as an extra bonus, you experience positive feelings that carry over into other parts of your life as well.
In the words of Kelly McGonigal, caring creates resilience.
Your Future of Courage and Hope
Your future encounters with stress can be positive.
Imagine that stressful situation again. Your heart races. Your hands shake. Your stomach tightens. But this time you tell yourself, I’m excited. I am prepared for this situation. My body is taking care of me. You open your heart to the benefits of stress and trust your own ability to navigate the situation.
And then you choose to reach out to those around you—to protect and nurture them through the stress.
As you do, your body adapts, protecting your health and providing hormones and neurotransmitters that send you courage and hope.
You have chosen.
Your body has responded.
You are brave. You are capable. You are strong.
This article is published with permission from the author, Angie Schultz. You can find more info for Angie in her author bio below.
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