You can't control whether or when pressure hits. But you can control how you react, which is crucial to protecting your good health. Use our experts' stress management advice to navigate those tense times.

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Stress is a fact of life. That can be a good thing, giving you the push you need to meet a work deadline, pack for a trip, or do laundry before you run out of clean underwear. But a steady stream of tension—whether constant fights with a partner or a crushing workload—takes a toll on your health, particularly your heart. "Just like high blood pressure or diabetes, stress is a risk factor for heart disease because it can cause inflammation and hinder blood flow to the heart," says Jennifer H. Mieres, M.D., professor of cardiology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine.

Stressed woman on couch.
Image courtesy of Getty.

The drip-drip-drip of daily stressors hits women—particularly young ones—especially hard. "Heart disease cases haven't been declining in women younger than 55 like they have in older women," says Viola Vaccarino, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the department of epidemiology at Emory University School of Public Health. "And stress is part of the problem." Research shows that women's hearts don't weather it well. One study of cardiac patients found that young women's blood flow to the heart dropped about twice as much as men's when they felt tense. The key to easing the impact: Build in strategies to manage stress so you'll guard against the negative effects of whatever comes your way.

Four experts give lots of realistic ways to cope with life's pressure so you can safeguard your heart and your overall health.

1. Try a Simple Breathing Exercise

We're so used to being stressed that we often don't recognize the warning signs (headaches, tight neck and shoulders, grinding your teeth) that stress is taking a toll. Stop and check in with yourself at least once a day. How's your breathing? Are your muscles tight? Take a few deep breaths to let go of the tension. Simply being more aware of your reaction to stress, and taking a few minutes to breathe, can help tame your body's reaction, says Aggie Casey, R.N., M.S.N., nurse manager, cardiac rehabilitation at Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital and co-author of Mind Your Heart ($16 on Amazon).

You can also try these simple breathing exercises: Count very slowly from 10 down to 1, saying the number on each out-breath. For example: Breathe in, and as you exhale, say "10." Inhale, then as you exhale, say "9," slowly working your way to zero. Another option is square breathing: Visualize a square. As you breathe in, visualize a vertical line and then a horizontal line. As you breathe out, picture another vertical and horizontal line to complete the square. It's also especially important in today's virtual world to aim for at least one meaningful conversation a day with friends or family. There's a comforting connection that happens when you hear another person's voice, which you don't always get via e-mail or text.

2. Lower Anxiety with Nutritious Foods

Eating healthy, whole foods consistently throughout the day helps keep your blood sugar balanced. Hunger and low blood sugar make it difficult to react well to stress. I always carry a small bag of almonds, cashews, or walnuts in my bag for times I'm stuck in traffic or waiting for a meeting and starting to stress out, says Keri Glassman, M.S., R.D.,  founder and president of Nutritious Life. If it's been an especially tense day, have a cup of chamomile tea. You'll just feel your anxiety dropping as you sip. And you might sleep better, a proven way to lower anxiety and help your body recover from it.

3. Redirect Your Thoughts

I recently started making jewelry, and I find that working with my hands puts my brain in a focused but relaxed space, says Mary Alvord, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at The George Washington University School of Medicine. It's a moving meditation for me. Knitting and crocheting can have the same effect. Another strategy that you can apply if you're on edge all the time, always imagining the worst: Work on "restructuring" your thoughts so that you don't catastrophize. For example: You're running late to a meeting, and you're panicking, thinking you're going to miss important information or even get fired. Step back and ask yourself, How likely is it? How could I handle it if it did happen? Giving yourself a reality check and thinking through what you would do if the worst did happen can help you calm down.

It's also important to be part of a supportive group outside your family, like a book or garden club. Connecting even once a month helps relieve stress by giving you something to look forward to and making you feel like you're part of a larger community.

4. Work Up a Sweat

Exercising is key to conditioning your heart to protect it against the negative effects of stress. Walking is great, but I like to think of it as a gateway exercise. Start there, but if you really want to strengthen your heart and lungs, you need to do aerobic exercise that breaks a sweat.

The one way to know if you're getting where you need to be is to wear a heart rate monitor. Use the traditional formula: Subtract your age from 220, and your heart rate during exercise should be 80 percent of that. So if you're 35, your target heart rate is 80 percent of 185 (220 minus 35), or 148. Also mix in some bursts of high-intensity exercise. Your heart gets a better workout when it's climbing than when it's steady, even if it's holding at a rapid pace.

The other thing you'll find is that once you're really exercising, you'll just naturally eat better. Twenty years ago, I weighed well over 200 pounds. Then I joined a soccer team and found that even on diet cheat days, I no longer wanted french fries. And today? I weigh 120 pounds, says Maria Guerra, certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and national spokesperson for  American Heart Association's Go Red for Women.

Learning how to manage stress in life takes practice and patience, but it will get easier. Remember these stress management strategies (like relaxing breathing exercises or restructuring your thoughts) the next time you're feeling anxious and edgy, and you'll be able to healthily face any problems that arise.


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