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Do You Know What Stress Can Do to Your Health?

Occasional stress is a part of every life, and can help you focus and take action. But chronic stress can lead to disease and disorder. Learn more about chronic stress, including ways to address it naturally.

Chronic overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system is often the consequence of our reaction to daily challenges. The result is similar to chronic inflammation, in that stress can contribute to diseases and disorders including:

  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Hypertension
  • Immune suppression
  • Gastrointestinal ailments
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disorders
  • Defensiveness
  • Isolation
  • Sexual dysfunction

Regular physical activity, such as a daily brisk walk, is undoubtedly the best way to help maintain balance of the nervous system and overall health. You also can help manage unhealthy stress with mind-body therapies such as breath work, meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis, heart rate variability training and visualization. Yoga and tai chi, as well as bodywork such as massage and Trager work can also help. Getting quality sleep is essential as well. Find a stress-relieving activity that works for you, and make it a priority to practice it regularly.

A Good Reason to Keep Your Cool

Losing your temper can raise your risk of a heart attack or stroke within hours after your meltdown. A review and analysis of nine studies conducted between 1966 and 2013 found that within two hours of an angry outburst, the risk of a heart attack or acute coronary syndrome (which means heart attack or angina) increased nearly five-fold. The analysis also suggested the risk of stroke increased nearly four-fold, as did the risk of ventricular arrhythmia, a dangerous heart rhythm disorder. The researchers reported that the risk was highest among people who often lost their temper and also had existing risk factors for heart problems. While the individual risk of having a coronary event after an angry blowup is generally pretty low, the investigators wrote that among people who get angry more often, five outbursts a day would lead to approximately 158 extra heart attacks per 10,000 people per year among those at low risk, and 657 extra heart attacks among those at high risk.

Sources:
Elizabeth Mostofsky et al,  “Outbursts of anger as a trigger of acute cardiovascular events: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” European Heart Journal, DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehu033, published online 3 March 2014

Emotional Eating Goes Two Ways

When you consider emotional eating, you may focus on the tendency to seek comfort foods that beckon when you’re blue, but a new study suggests that emotional eating has a flip side: the healthy decisions you make about food when you’re in a good mood. Researchers at the University of Delaware set out to explore this territory by first recruiting 211 local adults and asking them to read inspiring articles about someone who had a good life and achieved worthwhile goals or to read something neutral. Afterward, when offered a choice of foods, the study volunteers who read the positive article rated the healthy ones higher than high calorie comfort foods. For a second study, the researchers gave 315 college undergraduates negative articles about someone whose life was sad and who failed to reach goals or something neutral to read. After that, when given food choices, the students preferred the comfort foods. The researchers concluded that when you’re in a good mood you’re more likely to think ahead, and about the future benefits of making healthy food choices. The flip side is that when we’re down, we’re still more likely to opt for the immediate taste and sensory experience that comfort foods offer.

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Sources:
Meryl Gardner et al, "Foods and moods: Considering the future may help people make better food choices." ScienceDaily, February 12, 2014.

Benefits of Retail Therapy

Does shopping give you a boost when you’re feeling blue? A new online study from the University of Michigan suggests that retail therapy has emotional benefits. The information supplied by participants suggests that making decisions about purchases can help restore a sense of control and reduce sadness. The research team recruited 100 adults and showed them a movie clip that had been found in earlier research to induce sadness (it was about the death of a boy’s mentor). Afterward, the participants were randomly assigned to either make choices about items to buy or to browse. The “buyers” were asked to imagine spending $100 for a selection of four out of 12 items all priced at $25 and then to drag the four they selected to a shopping cart. The browsers were shown the same 12 products, asked to select the four which would be most useful for travel and then drag them into a box labeled travel items. Afterward, analysis of the data showed that the “buyers” had much lower “sadness scores” than the browsers. The researchers attributed the difference to the sense of control restored by making shopping decisions. Next on the agenda: can buying big ticket items help restore a sense of control among people with chronic emotional problems?

My take? Shopping is known to be a quick fix for transitory emotions, and may help alleviate the melancholy generated by a bad day or tragic event. Other studies have found that a shopping binge can have lasting positive effects on mood and that those who indulge don’t regret or feel guilty about spending to cheer themselves up. I’m not sure it would be as helpful for people struggling with depression, which often entails an inability to enjoy activities that usually hold interest. Of course, spending itself can cause problems and regret for those unable to manage their budgets, suggesting that this approach to mood management has definite, serious limitations. I’ll be curious to see the results of more formal studies of the effects of retail therapy on longer lasting sadness and depression.

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Sources:
Scott I. Rick et al,  “The benefits of retail therapy: Making purchase decisions reduces residual sadness,” Journal of Consumer Psychology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2013.12.0041.

Selin Atalay and Margaret G. Meloy et al, “Retail therapy: A strategic effort to improve mood”, Psychology and Marketing, DOI: 10.1002/mar.20404