Our heart rates naturally change to deal with stress or exertion. If they don't that could indicate you're at risk for future heart disease. [Image: Bigstock]

How to deal with stress? Let it go!

29 February, 2016

Natural Health News — Not all stress is the same, nor does it have the same impact on your health.

How you perceive and react to stressful events is more important to your health than how frequently you encounter stress, according to new data.

Studies show that stress and negative emotions can increase the risk of heart disease, but the reasons why are not fully understood. One potential link between stress and future heart disease is a dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system – where a person’s normally self-regulated nervous system gets off track.

What you need to know

» Stress can have a negative effect on health over the long term. It is especially linked with a higher risk of heart failure.

» But US scientist have found that the risk can vary according to how well you handle stress.

» Using heart rate variability as a measure of health, the researchers found that those who were able to respond positively to stress, had healthier more responsive hearts and therefore were at lower risk for heart disease.

The heart of the matter

Researchers at Penn State and Columbia University wanted to find out if daily stress and heart rate variability are linked. Heart rate variability is the variation in intervals between consecutive heartbeats and is an indication of how efficiently the autonomic nervous systems is working to regulate your heartbeat.

Your heartbeats should naturally change to deal with periods of stress or exertion and periods of rest.

“Higher heart rate variability is better for health as it reflects the capacity to respond to challenges,” said lead researcher Nancy L. Sin, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Healthy Aging and in the Department of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State. “People with lower heart rate variability have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.”

Depression and major stressful events are known to be harmful for health, but less attention has been paid to the health consequences of frustrations and hassles in everyday life.

Prior to this research, very few studies have looked at the relationship between heart rate variability and daily stressful events.

How we deal with stress

Sin and colleagues analysed data from 909 participants between the ages of 35 and 85. That data included daily telephone interviews over eight consecutive days and the results from an electrocardiogram.

During the daily phone interviews, participants were asked to report the stressful events they had experienced that day, rating how stressful each event was by choosing “not at all,” “not very,” “somewhat” or “very.”

They were also asked about their negative emotions that day, such as feeling angry, sad and nervous. On average, participants reported having at least one stressful experience on 42% of the interview days, and these experiences were generally rated as “somewhat” stressful.

Don’t let hassles pile up

Writing in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, the researchers found that participants who reported a lot of stressful events in their lives were not necessarily those who had lower heart rate variability.

No matter how many or how few stressful events a person faces it was those who perceived the events as more stressful or who experienced a greater spike in negative emotions that had lower heart rate variability – meaning these people may be at a higher risk for heart disease.

“These results tell us that a person’s perceptions and emotional reactions to stressful events are more important than exposure to stress per se,” said Sin.

“This adds to the evidence that minor hassles might pile up to influence health. We hope these findings will help inform the development of interventions to improve well-being in daily life and to promote better health.”