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Is stress getting in the way of heart-healthy habits?

You know what you’re supposed to do for heart health. Namely, exercise regularly and eat a Mediterranean-style diet—high in plant foods, low in refined carbs and saturated fat. If those good habits elude you despite your best intentions, it’s time to tackle the elephant in the room: stress. When you’re stressed acutely, your body pumps out cortisol and then adrenaline, your blood pressure rises, and your breathing and heart rate speed up. While this “fight or flight” response can help you deal with a crisis, it wreaks havoc on your body when it persists over the long term. What’s more, many people respond to stress with habits that can alleviate pressure in the moment but harm heart health over time, such as more-than-moderate drinking, overeating or eating junk food, smoking, and zoning out on the couch rather than being active. If that sounds familiar, it’s time to turn your stress ship around! In a journal, list the ways you respond when you’re stressed. Be totally honest, and don’t be hard on yourself. (That doesn’t help!) Seeing your unique stress patterns clearly is key to making different choices. Now make a list of stress-management practices that you could incorporate into your regular routine (consider meditation, yoga, or tai chi) and other changes that might help, like learning to say no if you’re over committed and planning regular lunches or phone dates with a friend. Finally, consider alternative ways to respond to stressful situations—perhaps you could go for a walk, do some deep breathing, or call a supportive family member. With your stress levels under control, you can focus on a feel-good, heart-healthy lifestyle.

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