Transform Stress with the Science of the Heart
By nutritional therapist, author and HeartMath® practitioner Susannah Lawson.
Stress can deplete wellbeing, drain energy and damage health – but despite knowing the harm it can do, finding a long-term effective way to positively manage stress can be hugely challenging.
As a nutritional therapist, almost every client I see rates stress as a problem in their life. And what I’ve discovered is that no matter how good a diet or supplement programme you follow, if you don’t find a way to tackle the negative effects of stress, it’s almost impossible to completely overcome your health problems and achieve your wellbeing goals. Stress can be as harmful to your body as smoking, drinking too much or eating a junk food diet. Indeed, an article in the Journal of American Medical Association found that too much stress can be as bad for your heart as smoking and high cholesterol. 
This is because as well as generating unpleasant emotional sensations, stress triggers a cascade of hormones that, over time, accelerate ageing, encourage inflammation and increase disease risk.
Finding a technique to help clients successfully – and easily – manage stress therefore became a key aim of my practice. So after trying various approaches – from breathing exercises and guided visualisation, to goal setting and encouraging daily ‘me’ time – I discovered the HeartMath® system.
The HeartMath system is a scientifically validated way to not only reduce stress – but more importantly, to transform the negative emotional and physiological effects you experience at the time the stressful event occurs. This is crucial because so many stress-relieving activities – listening to music, having a warm bath, a massage, a glass of wine, for example – focus on relaxation AFTER the event. Yet by the time you wind down, you’ve probably already experienced hours of stress and its unpleasant effects. The stress hormone cortisol, for example, stays in your system for hours rather than minutes once released. So the key appears to be learning how to transform your reaction to stress, and therefore stop the emotional and hormonal fallout that follows.
HeartMath developed simple techniques that achieve this – and comes with a whole host of positive side effects, from better sleep and energy levels to enhanced intuitive thinking and decision making. You can also monitor your progress and get instant review with a helpful hand-held educational device called a Personal Stress Reliever® (more on this later). But before we explore how you can use HeartMath tools and technology to experience these benefits for yourself, let us first understand why stress is so harmful.
Why reducing stress is important
Almost daily, new research reveals yet more harmful effects of too much stress. In the past few years alone, studies have shown that those of us who are regularly stressed have:
• A five-fold increased risk of dying from heart-related problems. 
• Double the risk of developing diabetes in men. 
• A 65% increased risk of developing dementia. 
• Double the chance of developing obesity. 
• A 12% lower likelihood of conception if you’re a fertile women. 
• An increased risk of breast cancer. 
Of course, some people will claim they thrive on stress. “Deadlines motivate me” clients often tell me. And as long as you truly perceive stress in a positive way – and are giving yourself adequate time to rest and recuperate – then you may not be having any harmful side effects. It’s when stress leaves you feeling depleted and out of control that it becomes problematic.
In Patrick Holford’s 100% Health Survey, 68% of the 55,000-plus participants reported feeling that they have too much to do, 66% said they frequently felt anxious or tense, 82% often became impatient and 55% get angry easily. These symptoms may be widespread, but are they healthy?
Stress has become so common in our society that it’s easy to forget its symptoms are our body’s way of warning us that something is out of balance. For many, stress becomes a habit that’s addictive and we seek out stressful situations to trigger that boost of adrenalin we need to give us the edge and keep us going.
Short term, this works fine. But long term, your body can’t go on supporting what’s designed to be an emergency coping reaction. Your in-built survival kit – which is what the stress or ‘fight or flight’ response essentially is – is not designed to be activated every day. Traffic jams, conflict with colleagues or your family, too much work etc are not life-threatening situations. But they still trigger the same response – and often many times each day.
How do you know that you are stressed in a negative way? Well if you experience the following on a regular basis, that’s a big clue:
• Find it hard to think straight
• Negative attitude
• Feeling out of control
• Feeling overwhelmed
• Heightened worries and concerns
What this list has in common is that all these symptoms are emotions. How you are feeling, to a much greater extent than your thoughts, activates and drives the physiological changes that correlate with the stress response. Thus the key to optimal health and vitality is directly related to our ability to self regulate our emotional response.
Simply put, the emotions we tend to label as ‘negative’ (ie those listed above) disrupt optimal physiological and mental functions ......
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