Depressed postmenopausal women have a 50% greater risk of developing or dying from heart disease than those who are not depressed, raising the possibility that treating the mind could help the body fight cardiovascular ills. This finding came from a four-year government study of 100,000 women across the United States. What is most striking is that depression was found to be an independent risk factor for subsequent cardiovascular death.
Obviously, volatile emotions such as anger and hostility are bad for your heart’s health. But studies have also shown that some of the quieter emotions can be just as toxic and damaging. Dr. Dean Ornish said, “Study after study has shown that people who feel lonely, depressed, and isolated are many times more likely to get sick and die prematurely, not only of heart disease but from virtually all causes, than those who have a sense of connection, love, and community.”
In cases of depression, women outnumber men 2-1. Women seem to adopt the “tend and befriend” attitude; they internalize their anger and disappointment instead of expressing these emotions, and they become nicer and more nurturing. Quiet people who hold everything in can experience a great increase in stress reactions. Women commonly put themselves last on the list and feel too pressed for time to exercise or give themselves down time. (Research in this area was conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and cited in the New England Journal of Medicine.)
You're stressed. We're stressed. Everyone's stressed. No big deal, right? Because it's so common, you might think that if you're not lying on the floor from exhaustion, you're probably fine. But stress has an insidious way of creeping up on you, and it's not just a mental or emotional issue—stress symptoms can impact the body in some very visible (and bizarre) ways.
"One of the biggest problems I see in my practice is women coming in with multiple physical signs of stress," says Nancy Molitor, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. In fact, a new study found that stress and other negative emotions were consistently linked to poor physical health in more than 150,000 people in 142 countries. That's because the mind and body are intrinsically connected:
"Emotional stress alerts the body to produce stress chemicals such as cortisol, which—if produced on an ongoing basis—begin to break down the immune, gastrointestinal, neurological, and musculoskeletal systems," says Molitor.
What's worse, those physical symptoms you end up with (um, bald patches) can bump up your emotional angst even more. If you don't break the cycle, you're left with an ugly feedback loop that increases your chances of serious issues such as obesity, depression, and heart disease.
The best ways to reduce your overall stress is to get enough sleep (seven to nine hours a night for most people), eat healthful food, exercise, reach out to supportive pals, and focus on things within your control. You can also learn to read your body and recognize the not-so-obvious signs that you're overstressed before it all snowballs into a long-term health condition.
Keep an eye out for these red flags.
• Stomachaches: The brain's nervous system is linked to the gut's, so mental stress can wreak havoc on your GI tract, says Bincy Abraham, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Baylor College of Medicine. Depending on your situation, your doctor may treat your tummy troubles with over-the-counter drugs (stool softeners), prescriptions (such as antinausea meds), or dietary changes (fiber can restore your gut's stress-ravaged helpful bacteria). In the meantime, the best natural remedy for stress-caused constipation, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting is. . .exercise. It may sound like the last thing you want to do when your stomach is aching, but heading out for a run can boost endorphins that make the mind and gut feel better.
• Hair Loss: Roughly three to six months after a majorly stressful event, like getting axed from a job or ending a big relationship, you might notice more hair on your brush or in the drain than usual (shedding around 100 strands a day is normal). Super-high levels of sex hormones called androgens, which zoom up during stress, could mess with hair follicles to prompt temporary hair loss, says Roberta Sengelmann, M.D., a dermatologist in Santa Barbara, California. There's no one food or supplement that's proven to restore your locks, but eating a balanced diet can help cell growth and healing.
• Eyelid Twitching: These annoying muscle spasms typically occur around one eye and last for a few minutes. Stress is one of their most common causes, though doctors aren't quite sure why. When a twitch strikes, close your eyes, try to relax, and breathe deeply. Inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and then exhale for eight seconds. Repeat this four times while using a fingertip to put mild pressure on the lid that's twitching. Over-the-counter artificial tears can also help ease the spasms, which dry eyes can exacerbate, says Anne Sumers, M.D., of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. If the twitching spreads to other parts of your face, see a physician—it could be a more serious type of spasm. Stress can short-circuit your immune system, causing dormant skin issues to act up.
• Acne: Just like your hair, your skin is sensitive to those higher-than-normal androgens, which can bring on breakouts, says Sengelmann. Talk to your dermatologist if your zits keep coming back—the chronic inflammation can lead to scarring. (As hard as it is, resist the urge to pop the suckers, which only adds to the inflammation. And you're more likely to end up with scarring when you're stressed and your body's ability to heal isn't at its peak.) Oral and topical prescription meds, as well as certain soaps, can help unplug pores and wipe out the bacteria that cause acne. Your dermatologist might also suggest you go on birth control, or switch up what you're already on, to balance out your hormones. And be sure to stick to noncomedogenic (i.e., non-pore-clogging) makeup, moisturizers, and sunscreen.
• Back Pain: The hormones your body pumps out when you're stressed produce a fight-or-flight response, which—along with raising your blood pressure and heart rate—tightens up your muscles. "If you're trying to outrun a predator, that's good," says Joanne Borg-Stein, M.D., of Harvard's Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. "But if it's all the time, that sort of chronic stress response can lead to pain." Plus, muscle aches are par for the course if you're hunched over at your desk all day worrying about deadlines. Movement is the best remedy, so if your back is in knots, stand up every hour and do some stretches, such as reaching your arms over your head, touching your toes, and rolling your neck and shoulders. Also try to get in a 10- to 15-minute walk around the office or outside once or twice a day.
• Rashes: Stress can bring on mysterious rashes or flare-ups of preexisting conditions. That's because it can throw your immune system—not to mention your skin's defenses—out of whack. When these are lowered, you could become susceptible to rash-causing skin infections caused by staph. On the flip side, if your immunity goes into overdrive, your skin will become more sensitive, making a dormant issue like eczema act up. In either case, bland emollients, including gentle OTC moisturizers, can help you heal. "If that doesn't help, or if the rash is accompanied by a fever or other flu-like symptoms—chills, sweating—see your doctor right away," advises Sengelmann.
“Taking Stress to Heart,” Dr. Wei Jiang, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, said that psychological factors can create “invisible damage,” and that emotional distress appears to have a negative effect on the cardiovascular system. The lack of blood flow to the heart, a condition known as ischemia, can contribute to heart disease and other cardiac problems, she points out. In a worst-case scenario, the stress can lead to a heart attack.
Dr. David Sheps, associate chair of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Florida and editor-in-chief of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, has studied the topic for more than 15 years. Although the mind-body link is complex, his research has consistently supported the notion that mental stress-induced ischemia can prove deadly—particularly among those already suffering from heart problems. While physical stress often produces symptoms, including chest pain, psychological factors can silently create damage.
Stress less. Exercise more. Get enough sleep. Call up some friends. Make some friends.