Chronic stress—and the unhealthy behaviors we often engage in to reduce it—is a well-known risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, and elevated blood sugar.

If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, your doctor may have set a deadline by which you need to reduce it. If your cholesterol levels remain high after that period, your doctor will likely recommend taking medication for cholesterol. The best way to lower cholesterol fast and naturally is to make important lifestyle changes, including making heart-healthy food choices, starting an exercise program—and reducing your stress. 

How is high cholesterol related to stress?

When you experience stress, your body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones trigger the body’s stress response, which includes increases in blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, muscle tension, and other body functions. The stress response is the body’s way of preparing to protect itself against an imminent threat by fighting or running away—which is why it’s also called the “fight or flight” response. 

Acute stress—the kind you experience when your car blows a tire on the freeway or you realize you left your wallet sitting on a park bench—helps you spring into action and take care of the threat. Then, when the danger is over, the hormones dissipate as quickly as they showed up, and your body functions go back to normal.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, doesn’t have an end point at which the stress hormones recede. This type of stress is the result of things like financial woes, an unhappy relationship, a high-stress job, or a long-term illness. Chronic stress leads to consistently high levels of stress hormones, which in turn can lead to consistently high blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and/or triglycerides. Stress hormones can also promote plaque buildup in the arteries, which increases the risk of heart attack, and they can affect how the blood clots, increasing the risk of stroke.

But chronic stress affects cholesterol in less direct ways, too. Stress is a significant risk factor for cigarette smoking, which is, itself, a significant risk factor for heart disease and numerous other major health problems. Stress is also a major risk factor for drug and alcohol use and addiction, which is a well-known contributor to heart disease.

It can hijack your sleep, causing or contributing to insomnia and other sleep-related disorders—research shows that people who sleep fewer than six hours per night have a significantly increased risk for developing heart disease. In one study, female participants who slept fewer than five hours per night had raised triglyceride levels and reduced “good” HDL cholesterol.

Reducing your stress goes a long way toward mitigating all of your risk factors for heart disease—including reducing your cholesterol levels and making it easier to make healthy lifestyle choices. 

10 ways to reduce chronic stress to lower your risk for heart disease

Here are some of the best ways to reduce stress for a happier, healthier you. 

1. Exercise

Getting regular exercise is at the top of the list of ways to reduce chronic stress. Exercise lowers your stress hormones both in the short-term and over time. It releases endorphins, or feel-good hormones, which improve your mood. Exercise is also one of the most important factors for lowering your cholesterol—learn why, and how to get started, in our guide to exercising for lower cholesterol.

2. Meditate

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, but it’s only become mainstream in the western world over the past few decades as eastern religions have spread to the west. The benefits of this science-backed complementary treatment include helping reduce high blood pressure, insomnia, depression and anxiety and reducing nicotine and alcohol cravings. Most notably, meditation is a powerful weapon against chronic stress.

Research shows that people who have meditated for many years develop more folds in the outer layer of the brain, which may improve the ability to process information. A study funded by the National CCIH found that meditation changes the activity of the amygdala, the part of the brain that’s responsible for the stress response and emotional processing. Meditation not only reduces stress on the spot, but also teaches your brain to respond to stress differently, even when you’re not meditating. 

Our guide to meditation for stress management explains why meditation works—and how to do it.

3. Eat healthy food

A nutritious diet affects the functioning of every cell in your body—including in your brain. The relationship between food choices and stress goes both ways. High stress levels lead to poor eating habits, and poor eating habits affect your stress levels. Your brain, including the amygdala, requires a large number of nutrients for optimal functioning, and healthy foods provide them. 

The same “diet” that helps reduce stress also reduces your risk for a vast number of health problems, including high cholesterol and heart disease. An ideal diet for overall health consists of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and low-fat dairy and proteins. Our helpful guide to lowering your cholesterol through your diet offers the basics about healthy eating and provides tips for making healthier food choices.

4. Just say no

Taking on more than you can handle is another major culprit for chronic stress. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to reduce the amount of responsibility you have, but in many cases, there is—especially if you tend to say yes to almost everything anyone asks, like taking on extra tasks at work, planning a party, or volunteering at your child’s school.

Saying no is difficult for people-pleasers, perfectionists, and those with caretaker personalities. It’s tough for people who want to do all the things they’re asked to do, and it’s hard for those who are afraid they’ll be disliked or passed up for a promotion. 

Learn to say no. Decide what your boundaries are—how many hours per week, for example, you’re willing to devote to extra work tasks, or socializing, or engaging in volunteer work—and stick to them. Practice saying no: Write a script for different scenarios, and practice it so you can decline easily and gracefully. And don’t feel guilty about it—you need to protect your time and your health, and there’s no need to apologize for it. 

5. Try talk therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you change the way you think about stress and the way you react to it. You’ll learn how to react less strongly to stressors and identify the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs you have about the things in your life that cause you stress. Talk therapy is also beneficial for helping you quit smoking, drinking, or engaging in other habits that may harm your health.

6. Make time for yourself

Leisure activities are important for your quality of life and for reducing stress. If you feel like your life is too busy for relaxing, engaging in hobbies, or having fun, practice saying no, and reclaim that time for yourself. 

7. Be nice to yourself

Harsh self-criticism is detrimental to your emotional wellbeing, and it can be a constant source of stress and negative emotions that impact your health. Treat yourself with compassion, like you would treat a good friend. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself, and when it’s rude, impatient, or otherwise unfriendly, correct it right away.

8. Express gratitude

Research shows that grateful people have lower stress, better overall mental health, and a higher quality of life. Gratitude helps you focus your attention on all of the things you have to be thankful for and less on the negative things causing you stress. It reminds you that things aren’t as bad as you might think they are—and they’re far better than they could be. You can keep a gratitude journal that you write in, or you can just take a few minutes to start your day with a few thoughts about what you’re grateful for—the sunny day, that you have somewhere to live, that you have a supportive family, that football, or art, or music, or dogs exist—there’s always something to be glad about. 

9. Stop procrastinating

Procrastination is a major cause of chronic stress. Putting things off—like paying your bills, finishing a work report, sending your aunt a birthday card, or making a doctor’s appointment—leads to all sorts of problems if you put them off too long. Even if you know you’ll get it done eventually, the prospect of having to do it—and worrying about the consequences if you don’t—causes stress. If you procrastinate a lot, it causes a lot of stress—especially if the consequences are severe.

Figure out why you’re procrastinating—chances are, it has to do with things like perfectionism (you’re afraid you’ll do it wrong), disorganization (you don’t know where to find what you need to get started), overwhelm (the task feels daunting). Then address the issue. In many cases, procrastination is a sign of an underlying health issue, such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression.

10. Recognize stinking thinking

Cognitive distortions are at the root of much of our perceived stress. Known as “stinking thinking” by some psychologists, these harmful thought patterns contribute to negative emotions that keep you mired in stress. Examples of stinking thinking include:

  • All-or-nothing: You see things in black or white, with no room for contemplation
  • Discounting the positive: You turn positive experiences negative, such as by saying, “I could have done better.”
  • Magnification: You overestimate the gravity of your problems and shortcomings or minimize your positive traits.
  • Personalization and blame: You hold yourself responsible for something that’s not entirely in your control, or you blame other people for your problems and overlook your own role.

Recognizing when your thoughts are distorted and framing things positively helps you overcome automatically assuming the worst or making mountains out of molehills. Try to find the humor and humanity in situations, express gratitude, and look closely at situations with a neutral eye. 

How Forward can help you reduce your stress for a healthier heart

Forward takes a proactive and preventive approach to reducing your risk for a wide range of diseases. As your primary care provider, we help you take control of your overall health— including your stress—through a range of programs and resources. The Forward Guide to Mediation for Stress Management can help you lower your stress—and your body’s physiological response to it in the future. Our doctor-led healthy heart program is open to all members and includes cholesterol, blood pressure, and stress management education and monitoring so you can achieve your wellness goals and enjoy better health moving forward.

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