Narrator: While bad habits like smoking, a poor diet, and a lack of exercise can heighten the risk of cardiovascular problems, a person's thoughts, attitudes, and emotions are also key culprits. According to the American psychological association, 54 percent of Americans are concerned about the level of stress in their everyday lives.
Olshansky: The connection between the heart and mind is very strong. The brain can influence the heart rate, the ability of the heart to have various rhythm disturbances, and can create major changes in blood pressure and create a variety of symptoms. If stress is needed, it might be a good thing. But if stress is just there because it’s stress and it's not being dealt with properly, it’s going to cause damage, and we know that.
Narrator: Increasingly, research is suggesting that stress, how we react to it in particular, may be a greater risk factor for heart problems than even high blood pressure and high cholesterol. A few years ago Dr. Brian Olshansky at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics conducted a study with Maharishi University to test the potential of holistic therapies for heart patients.
Olshansky: In the group with meditation, in the multimodality approach, they had reduction in the thickness of the artery in the neck, which reflected the thickness of the artery in the heart, which indicated that the arteries might be improving, that there was less blockage. Now, it was not what we call statistically significant, but there was a trend, and it was very intriguing information.
Narrator: Dr. Olshansky takes a holistic approach when caring for his heart patients. He often refers them to Larry Barsh, a stress relief counselor at the Cardiovascular Health Assessment, Management, and Prevention Services, or CHAMPS, at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
Barsh: Ninety percent of all illness, emotional or physical, is now being attributed to stress either as the cause or a major contributor. So emotional responses to things in life cause physiological actions, and a definition for stress is stress is what results when we physically or emotionally respond to real or imagined events. So I want to rebalance and redefine the emotions.
Narrator: Experts believe extended reactions to stress can alter the body's immune system. While we can't avoid all stress, we can take steps to reduce the impact of it. Dr. Olshansky and Barsh suggest their patients identify the sources of stress in their lives and recommend they look for ways to reduce and manage them.
Olshansky: There are various ways that an individual can reduce their own stress. Meditation is a good example. Being very mindful, being able to be self-aware will allow the stress that's unnecessary to melt away. There are other ways to address stress as well. For example, exercise. Exercise short term increases stress, but it strengthens the body's ability to withstand stress. Other approaches like yoga, for example, can work as well.
Narrator: Yoga can be a good means of relaxation and stress relief. Its quiet, precise movements focus a person's mind less on a busy day and more on the moment as he or she moves the body through poses that require balance and concentration. Maggie Rooney is studio director and yoga instructor at Firehouse Yoga Studio in Des Moines.
Rooney: Well, the nice thing about yoga is it incorporates the physical benefits. You can work up a pretty good sweat and be out of breath, but you also get to work with your breath, which is a natural way of slowing down your pace, allowing your body to relax. So it incorporates that, the mental and the physical into one.
Barsh: One of the greatest anecdotes for stress is to raise your awareness so you can identify the stressors. And then you have to be really honest with yourself. You ask yourself this bottom-line question: Is this worth dying for? If nothing else is working, you ask that question because if it is hurting you to be constantly involved with whatever that is that's stressing you, it's not worth it to you.