Scared of dying in a terrorist attack or accident? Actually the world’s leading cause of death is high blood pressure. One in seven people have it and almost half won’t know until they’re hit by a heart attack or stroke – like my dad who seemed fit and healthy until he dropped dead at just 52. Genetics, diet and age all play a role but one thing that really gets your heart pumping is stress. My dad had been retrenched many times and although he seemed physically healthy he was under immense emotional distress. How does that affect the heart? Through the fight or flight response.
We are the descendants of cavemen who were in constant threat of being eaten by a hungry tiger or uncle. Those who survived were able to do two things really well: fight or flight. Or in my ancestors case flight! In today’s world there may be no saber tooth tiger, just a saber-toothed boss. No death threat, just a dead line. Yet the body responds to an emotional threat as if it were a physical threat. Adrenaline pumps through the body, the heart speeds up to get blood to the muscles where it’s needed to fight or flight. The blood thickens to avoid excessive bleeding. That’s right, the brain is expecting a physical injury. A racing heart and thickened blood puts strain on the arteries, producing high blood pressure and the threat of a heart attack. If you’re constantly under pressure so is your heart.
So what can you do about it? Medication, lowering your salt in take, quitting smoking and exercising all help. Certainly my dad would have benefited from counseling to deal with his feelings of rejection. But there is something else. Breathe. I know how did you survive this long without me? Actually it’s slow, deep breathing. A study on 20 000 Japanese adults found that just 30 seconds of slow, deep breathing significantly reduced the blood pressure of people with both normal and high blood pressure.
When we’re stressed, we breathe fast and shallow. Fast, shallow breathing is like an accelerator, speeding up your heart rate, providing an immediate increase of oxygen to the muscles for fight or flight. Slow, deep breathing is like a break, slowing down your heart rate and releasing nitric oxide which dilates the blood vessels and reduces blood pressure.
How do you do it? Put your hand on your tummy. As you breathe in tummy expands. This means the oxygen is going deep into your lungs. As you breathe out tummy goes in. Now breathe in for the count of two and out for the count of four while internally saying the word “calm” on the out breath. (Demonstrate) The key is to slow down your breathing to less than ten breaths a minute. This won’t just drop your blood pressure, it also reduces anxiety and builds your stress resilience.
So – the next time you’re stressed – breathe, slow and deep.