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American Heart Association

Kick stress out of your life, add a hobby in 2021

7 Minute Read

It’s 2021. Time to say goodbye to stressful and angst-ridden 2020. Although stress can feel like a minor inconvenience, you shouldn’t shrug it off, health experts say.  Emotional and mental strain can leave you more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal trouble and other problems.

How stress can affect the body 

"The impact of stress on the body can be acute or chronic, and it can happen suddenly or be exerted in a low-grade fashion over time," said Dr. Ernesto Schiffrin, physician-in-chief in the department of medicine at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. "It can contribute over time to increase in blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart attacks and eventually heart failure."

Schiffrin described stress in general terms as "aggression against the body," which could be coming from within or from your environment. When the body feels attacked, it activates the "fight-or-flight" reaction, releasing adrenaline and increasing cortisol levels. Excess exposure to these hormones can affect just about every system in the body.  A study from 2019 showed that during 27 years of follow-up, the incidence of cardiovascular disease among those with stress disorders was higher than in those without them.

While the effects of stress can manifest over time, they can also come on quickly. The sudden onset of intense stress can cause broken heart syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. This is when part of the heart enlarges and doesn't pump as effectively. It could be brought on by the death of a loved one or a divorce, breakup or betrayal, and its symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack.

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to manage stress, even with restrictions and life changes brought on by the coronavirus. These include getting plenty of exercise, because regular physical activity has been shown to relieve stress, tension, anxiety and depression. It also means maintaining social connections and talking with people you trust about your concern. So make time to video chat, talk on the phone or take part in online communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking breaks from watching, reading or listening to news stories that address issues about the pandemic. And don’t forget to get plenty of shut-eye. Given the change in schedules and routines, you may need to establish (and stick to) a new bedtime routine.

Find a new hobby

Maybe it was all those photos of sourdough bread in your social media feed. Maybe you're just bored. Whatever the spark, try taking on something new for the new year.

"The process of being creative does a whole bunch of really good things for us," physically and mentally, said James C. Kaufman, professor of educational psychology at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

A stimulating hobby is just plain fun and can distract you from negative thoughts, fears or worries. And at its best, a creative activity such as drawing or playing music can put you in a state of "flow," where you're intensely caught up in what you're doing. 

"This is not shockingly different from what they call runner's high, or what mountain climbers say they feel," Kaufman said.

Some activities, such as writing with an emphasis on a narrative, as in a journal or blog, can lower harmful stress by helping us organize our thinking, he said. "It helps put all these different thoughts, as if they were loose clothing, onto coat hangers. And it frees up space in our brain."

That's not the only way hobbies can help us, researchers say. A 2015 study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that engaging in leisure activities improved mood and stress levels and lowered heart rates. In 2017, a small study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that pleasant leisure activities lowered the blood pressure of Alzheimer's disease caregivers.

And that's important in the middle of a pandemic, said Jeanine Parisi, an associate scientist in the department of mental health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "Everything seems a little out of control. Activities are the one thing that could provide structure and give you back a sense of personal control."

A good hobby is something that lives in the sweet spot of being not so easy that it's not engaging, but not so challenging that you give up quickly.  Don't be afraid to take baby steps, Parisi said. 

"Even with physical activity, you don't have to go from being a couch potato to running a 5K. All you need to do is take one more step than you did the previous day."

As you do the activity, "you're building confidence, you're making it part of your identity," she said. "It's giving you a sense of control and pride. That feeling of, 'Wow! I did that!"

Article provided by the American Heart Association


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