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It all starts in the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, which reacts to stress by activating the so-called fight-or-flight response, triggering the release of hormones that over time can increase levels of body fat, blood pressure and insulin resistance. Furthermore, as the team explained, the cascade of reactions to stress causes inflammation in the arteries, fosters blood clotting and impairs the function of blood vessels, all of which promote atherosclerosis, the arterial disease that underlies most heart attacks and strokes.
Dr. Tawakol’s team explained that advanced neuroimaging made it possible to directly measure the impact of stress on various body tissues, including the brain. A prior study of 293 people initially free of cardiovascular disease who underwent full-body scans that included brain activity had a telling result. Five years later, individuals found to have high activity in the amygdala were shown to have higher levels of inflammation and atherosclerosis.
Translation: Those with an elevated level of emotional stress developed biological evidence of cardiovascular disease. In contrast, Dr. Osborne said, “people who are not tightly wired” are less likely to experience the ill heart effects of stress.
The researchers are now investigating the impact of a stress-reducing program called SMART-3RP (it stands for Stress Management and Resiliency Training-Relaxation Response Resiliency Program) on the brain as well as biological factors that promote atherosclerosis. The program is designed to help people reduce stress and build resilience through mind-body techniques like mindfulness-based meditation, yoga and tai chi. Such measures activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the brain and body.
Defusing stress and its effects
Even without a formal program, Dr. Osborne said individuals could minimize their body’s heart-damaging reactions to stress. One of the best ways is through habitual physical exercise, which can help to tamp down stress and the body-wide inflammation it can cause.
Given that poor sleep increases stress and promotes arterial inflammation, developing good sleep habits can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular damage. Adopt a consistent pattern of bedtime and awakening, and avoid exposure at bedtime to screens that emit blue light, like smartphones and computers, or use blue-light filters for such devices.
Practice relaxing measures like mindfulness meditation, calming techniques that slow breathing, yoga and tai chi.