We were delighted to have Dr. Brian Distelberg as our expert guest in Club Epanafero last week to talk about reducing stress for your health. He is Professor, School of Behavioral Health and Director of Research, Behavioral Medicine Center, Loma Linda University, US. Together with him and our Club members, we explored our Heart Pillar question for the month: Is Stress Affecting Your Heart Health?
As reducing your stress is vitally important to your heart health, we share our reflections and main take-aways in this article from our interview with Dr. Distelberg. We also cover what causes stress, what its effects on the body, and how you can learn to manage your stress levels so that you don’t suffer the negative consequences on your heart health.
Reflections from our interview with Dr. Distelberg
We really appreciated that Dr. Distelberg shared his clinical experience as well as his research into stress reduction in the interview. His responses were a blend of expert knowledge and practical tips. As our members shared at the end of the interview, Dr. Distelberg gave us lots to think about…lots to learn…and lots to put into practice straight away!
In this video, we share our reflections from Sunday’s interview with Dr. Distelberg:
Our main take-aways from this interview
We covered a lot of ground with Dr. Distelberg in this interview. As we’ve re-listened to what he shared – and what our members asked about – we thought you’d find useful a quick summary of our main take-away message about stress reduction.
If nothing else, remember these five key points:
- Don’t ignore stress or think that it is unavoidable.
- Be aware of your body – in particular, what is happening in your body in terms of what you’re feeling and experiencing.
- Become aware of your own stress response. This will lead you to better understand what triggers it, and therefore what steps you can take to reduce your stressors.
- Try to reduce even one stressor. It may not seem like a lot, and especially if you’re overwhelmed by many stressors at the same time. But reducing your stress load even by a little will have a positive effect on your body.
- Seek external help when your stress levels are higher than you think they should be, or when you can’t identify any discernable triggers. Don’t assume that you must live with high stress levels. Instead, make an appointment to get professional support as a priority.
What causes stress?
There are many potential stressors, as you can see in the image below. Some have external sources (i.e. something happens outside you, and you react); others come from within (e.g. you replay an argument that you had with a family member a week ago, and you react).
In both cases, take note that your body reacts; but also notice that this happens only when you perceive that the external/internal factor is stressful.
Dr. Distelberg gave a useful framework for thinking about how you can reduce your stressors when he identified four main areas where stress arises: relationships, physical, biological, spirituality
You should also remember that you will respond differently to these triggers at different times. For example, you may feel very stressed by something seemingly “small” – such as forgetting a file at your office or misplacing your car keys – when you are tired, hungry, and already feeling overwhelmed. Fast forward to the next day…and you may react entirely differently after a good night’s sleep, your morning walk and a delicious breakfast!
What are the effects of stress?
In our course “Is Stress Affecting Your Heart Health?“, we looked at the many effects of stress on the body. And unfortunately, once stress is beyond a critical level, its consequences are only negative.
Stress can either cause, or is associated with, the following:
- Poor mental & emotional health, including anxiety and depression
- Immune system suppression
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Sexual dysfunction and reduced fertility
- Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, stroke, heart failure or even sudden cardiac death
- Cause conditions which increase cardiac risk such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and inflammation.
High stress can have devastating physical consequences. This is something that Dr. Edwin sees on all too often in his cardiology practice. Recently, one of his patients suffered a small stroke when trying to manage the arrival of family members. In the process of taking care of their travel arrangements, hiring a rental car for their stay, sorting out their accommodation etc., this individual found that he couldn’t insert his car key into the ignition: he’d experienced a small stroke, and so had to call on a close relative to take him immediately to the hospital.
Another of Dr. Edwin’s patients called him when her blood pressure suddenly increased significantly. In her case, he established that she was reacting to one of her blood pressure medications. The sad irony of this situation is that her blood pressure could have been elevated through stress. As both Dr. Edwin and Dr. Distelberg observed, no one should overlook stress; and nor should anyone think that stress is simply a part of life that cannot be avoided.
But the good news is that there is a lot that you can do to reduce unnecessary stress, and to control how you react to stress.
Stress is a process that you can manage
Dr. Distelberg described what happens in the body during stress as a process which follows a clearly defined pathway. This is both reassuring and helpful – for, by and large, it means that your stress response follows this same pathway.
Once you understand this, you can learn what to look out for, what triggers you, and when you can (or should!) intervene so that your stress doesn’t escalate. Knowing how your body reacts will also give you clues about your stressors – both in terms of what makes you feel stressed as well as how much stress they cause you.
According to Dr. Distelberg, you can certainly acquire the knowledge and develop the tools to reduce your stress levels and prevent them from shooting through the roof.
Your experience of stress is unique to you!
This being said, everyone is different in what they find stressful and therefore, how they experience stress.
As Dr. Distelberg explained, your stress reactions are established in the earlier years of your life. Also, you have your own stress “thermostat” which indicates how much stress you can tolerate before it has a negative effect on your body. All of this combined means that you will experience and deal with stress differently from everyone else in your life – even those you are close to, like your spouse or a sibling…and even if you are exposed to exactly the same stressor!
What you hold in common with others, however, is the need to bring down your stress levels. And perhaps surprisingly, you will also share many of the same ways to reduce your stress.
How can you reduce your stress levels?
Dr. Distelberg firmly advocates that everyone should actively spend time to learn about their stressors, and how to manage their stress.
As a first step, he advocates doing what is necessary to lower your body’s stress response as soon as you notice it; and then to dedicate time to understand what triggers you and why. And lastly, he believes in the power of a healthy lifestyle…which means eating well, being physically active daily, cultivating supportive relationships, getting plenty of sleep, and dedicating time to your spiritual practices.
As you can see, we are in full alignment with Dr. Distelberg on all of this! Stress may indeed be a part of your life today, but it does not have to negatively impact your health or your joy in being alive. Learn how to reduce your stress, and your body will certainly thank you!
Want the full interview and our Stress Course?
If you’d like to hear the full interview, we invite you to join us within Club Epanafero. You will have access to this interview with Dr. Brian Distelberg, as well as all our previous guest expert interviews. We invite you to see which Club Epanafero Membership Package is right for you.
We also encourage you to check out Dr. Brian Distelberg and his work at the Loma Linda University School of Behavioral Health.
Dr. Edwin (Consultant Cardiologist) and Katrine (Heart Health & Wellness Coach) are husband-and-wife team and co-founders of Epanafero. They combine their expertise in cardiology, mindset and behavior change to help their Club members develop heart-healthy habits and achieve their wellness goals. Beyond Epanafero, they enjoy learning about cultures, cuisines and language through travel. They love nature and are committed to their spirituality.