Stressing the Importance of a Healthy Heart

Story Number: NNS150212-12Release Date: 2/12/2015 11:55:00 AM
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By Jessica L. Tounzen, Naval Center for Combat & Operational Stress Control Public Affairs

SAN DIEGO (NNS) -- February is Heart Health Month, but maintaining a healthy heart should be a daily priority. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who estimate this killer claims a life about every minute.

Approximately one in four deaths can be blamed on heart disease or stroke. Every day, each of us is at risk, and there's a somewhat lesser-known culprit behind that heart attack or stroke lurking just around the corner.

Research has shown the causes of a diseased heart aren't just physical, but psychological as well. In addition to hereditary factors beyond our control and the well-known physical risk factors-living a sedentary life, having high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, being a smoker, eating a high-fat diet, or being overweight or obese-we also put ourselves at risk for heart disease every day simply because of the stress in our lives.

Common military stressors may include wear and tear of the daily operational demands, moral injury, threat of injury or loss of a friend in combat, worry over passing an advancement exam and making rank, the demands of parenthood, or, for the caregivers out there, the responsibilities of caring for a patient or loved one while also coping with your own personal stress and additional job demands.

At Naval Center for Combat & Operational Stress Control (NCCOSC), we are intimately familiar with the psychological effects of stress, such as changes in mood, memory, judgment, or concentration, along with feelings of irritability or loneliness.

But how does stress affect your heart? According to the Cleveland Clinic, when stress is left untreated, it can cause high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, damage to arteries, high cholesterol, weakened immune system, and it can also cause coronary artery disease to develop.

The American Psychological Association (APA) goes one step further, making the mind-body connection by saying when stress devolves into depression, the risk of heart disease goes up.

According to the APA, long-term studies have shown that men and women diagnosed with clinical depression are more than twice as likely to develop heart disease or suffer a heart attack, and clinically depressed people are twice as likely to suffer a heart attack even up to 10 years after their first depressive episode.

And in a study featured in the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies' Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers found individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had an elevated heart rate during sleep, putting them at higher risk for heart disease.

In one study, about half the participants saw improvements in chronic headaches after learning how to stop the stress-producing habit of "catastrophizing," or constantly thinking negative thoughts about their pain. A low level of social support has also been shown to increase risk of heart disease. And it makes sense-if you don't have a strong support network to help relieve your burden, the stress will only worsen.

Combining our passion for stress prevention and early intervention along with our commitment to staying up-to-date on the latest technologies in the field of psychological health, in 2013 we at NCCOSC began testing an iPad app developed by the Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, called Stress Resilience Training System (SRTS).

This app incorporates cognitive learning and neurophysiological biofeedback techniques in a scientifically-designed stress resilience training approach to minimizing the adverse effects of stress and helping to prevent the occurrence of psychological injuries.

Through the use of heart rate variability (HRV)-controlled games and simulations with a HRV sensor clipped to the user's earlobe, SRTS lets the user practice stress control techniques in a series of engaging and progressively more challenging environments.

In a nutshell, SRTS allows the user to build their resilience when faced with stressful events, so when they actually face those events in real life, they'll be less likely to experience a harmful side effect of that stress.

At NCCOSC we are always stressing (pun intended) the importance of building and maintaining resilience. Through Caregiver Occupational Stress Control (CgOSC) train-the-trainer events where we discuss Combat & Occupational Stress First Aid (COSFA) and self-care, we teach resilience-building skills including optimism, flexible thinking, and positive coping, to build and preserve psychological resilience. But when you actually make the effort to implement those skills to strengthen your resilience, you're getting an added benefit-a healthy heart. Approximately 2,200 people die every day from heart disease-that's 2,200 reasons to manage your stress.

Keep your heart healthy and stay resilient.

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