instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Choose Your Medicine: Laughter, Music, Optimism

by Therese Droste

Stress: The word lingers like a threatening hiss. And that’s appropriate, because too much stress, over time, can cause you to acquire risk factors--diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure--that lead to heart disease.

How does stress work? It releases adrenaline from the autonomic nervous system. “This adrenaline release sets up a whole cascade of reactions, including increased heart rate and blood pressure and stimulation of blood clotting cells, called platelets. Stress hormones can damage blood vessels by altering their flexibility and making them more vulnerable to plaque disruption,” explains cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, author of The Women’s Healthy Heart Program.

Chronic stress can result in unhealthy habits, such as smoking, being sedentary, overusing alcohol, eating poorly, and being socially isolated, she adds.

Too stressed out to even think about taking care of yourself? Here are some tips to help you out:

Be optimistic.
PollyAnna was right: Optimists live longer than pessimists, according to a study of over 1,100 people tracked for 30 years by researchers at the Mayo Clinic.

And, in a separate study of 999 people, men and women ages 65 to 85, researchers in the Netherlands found that optimistic participants had lower rates of heart disease and were 77% less likely to die of cardiovascular diseases.

Switch jobs.
Yes, your critical boss really can make you sick. The more your job stresses you out, the greater your chance of developing metabolic syndrome, a combination of factors that increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to a study of over 10,000 British civil servants.

Turn on the tunes.
Researchers found that classical music, particularly Baroque--think Pachelbel’s Canon in D--works well. Music with adagio movements of 60 beats per minute produced heightened alpha brain wave activity similar to that found during deep relaxation and meditation.

Don’t yo-yo diet.
Is fitting into that slinky black dress worth a heart attack? A study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health showed that consistently gaining or losing weight increased the risk of cardiovascular disease due to lower levels of HDL, the good cholesterol.

Take control.
“When you perceive you’re not in control, that’s when stress hormones come into play,” says Goldberg. Know what triggers your stress, and work to lessen the feelings so the stress is not prolonged.

Toast less.
“Some people use alcohol to reduce stress, but it’s a two-edged sword that most likely will lead to dependency,” says JoAnn Manson, MD, DrPH, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Abusing alcohol raises levels of triglycerides, which are fats in the blood, and can lead to high blood pressure and heart failure.

Practice tai chi.
Moods were raised and cortisol levels dropped in one study of tai chi practitioners. When compared to other participants in the study who walked 6 kilometers per hour, the tai chi practitioners were found to have similar heart rate and blood pressure levels.

“Have you heard the one about...?”
Researchers at Loma Linda University Medical Center had adults view funny videos, and found that humor triggered a physiological response similar to exercise. Laughter increased endorphins and neurotransmitters, lowered stress hormone levels, and activated T-cells, which fight viruses. Too buttoned up to belly laugh? Consider joining a laughter club for some help (

Forgive someone.
Stanford researchers, in a study of 259 people who received forgiveness training, found that 70% of them had decreased feelings of hurt, 27% had reduced physical symptoms of stress, and 15% had lower emotional stress.

Make friends.
“Women need each other, especially after a sudden stressful event,” says Goldberg. A 2005 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that women’s hearts are more vulnerable to sudden stressful events, and that highly emotional experiences cause a surge in stress hormones and temporarily weaken the heart muscle.

In a Canadian study of 90 patients, those who meditated in a group for 7 weeks, as well as additionally at home, had lower scores of mood disturbances, stress, depression, anxiety, and anger than the group that did not meditate. So take time to center. Most experts and meditation teachers recommend 20-minute periods.