A recent study indicates an alarming trend: Women with stressful jobs could be 70% more likely to suffer heart attacks than peers under less stress. The results of Dr. Michelle Albert’s study of 22,000 women over 10 years was recently published in the on-line journal PLoS ONE. According to Dr. Albert, a professor in cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, those women in active jobs (high-demand with a sense of control) and high-strain (with very low-control) were much more likely to have a heart attack or other vascular problems than women in passive jobs (low-demand low-control) and low-strain (low-demand with a high sense of control). Are active, high-strain jobs stressing women to the point of creating negative behavioral reactions of over-eating, over-drinking and smoking? Or is it the case that these jobs intrinsically lead to dangerously high blood pressure?
What These Data May Be Telling Us
It could mean that women seeking balance between their families and their active, high-strain jobs suffer more stress than men. Our hearts, both physical and noetic, weren’t meant to endure the sustained tension of such intense pressure. Waxing old school, our hearts were meant to be loving, open, compassionate and hopeful – not hyper-tense and fraught with coronary artery disease. One of the many by-products of stress is a reduction in conscientiousness and self care. We become present-oriented in a negative way. Our lives are so full of the “have to’s and “must do’s” that we have to accomplish on a daily basis so we find ourselves too busy to take care of ourselves; too busy to brush our teeth properly or exercise, too busy to make a wholesome meal, too busy to take a walk, too busy to have a conversation—even too busy to make love with our partner. This lack of self care can wreak havoc on our relationships and starts a chain of events that start from the mental and eventually takes a physical toll, which can in turn lead to heart disease.
The Thinking Heart
Just like the brain in our cranium has left and right hemispheres, our heart has a brain comprised of two nodes. According to Paul Pearsall in his book, The Heart’s Code, the heart’s brain is far more complex than we originally thought. The heart is much more than just a pump; it conducts the cellular symphony that is the very essence of our being. And the heart has a memory stored in its muscles, just like our brain…
The Heart Remembers
A few years ago, I met an older Caucasian woman who had undergone a heart transplant. She was a cheerful Mid-Westerner. Prior to receiving her new heart she didn’t like spicy foods, was a teetotaler and had zero interest in sports. But after her heart transplant she craved nachos with jalapenos and hot sauce, beer – and inexplicably loved to watch basketball. This was beyond weird to her; so she decided to find out who her donor was. She discovered he was a young African American basketball player who had been in a fatal car accident. She spoke with his mother and described her new favorite things and was surprised to learn that nachos, beer and basketball were her son’s three favorite things. His grateful heart transplant recipient believed his young heart, which beat so strongly in her chest, in some way carried his memories, which she now cherished.
Good and Bad Stress
We usually think of stress in a negative way; and people react differently to stress. For instance, a surprise birthday party may cause elation for one person and a panic attack for another. Positively, stress can spur us on to accomplish things – like studying for a test or meeting a deadline; when we’ve completed the task, we feel good. Negatively, when we undergo constant stress on the job – like being bullied by a boss or co-worker, or endure physically unsafe working conditions and then try to resume a normal life after work - like picking up the kids after school, making dinner and doing the laundry - we strain not only our relationships but also our hearts. And when we are stressed out, we don’t usually handle things well. We tend to over-react to situations that under normal circumstances wouldn’t bother us. “The Good Woman” we used to be becomes “The Woman from Hell”. She is frustrated, angry and sometimes hostile; in a nice word - moody, in a not-so-nice-word - a “bitch”. This causes us to feel guilty which adds to the stress. As our stress compounds, in time it can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure; and according to Medicinenet.com, studies also link stress to changes in the way our blood clots, which then increases the risk of heart attacks.
Stress Becomes a Memory Stored in Our Hearts
In most cases, heart attacks don’t just happen. We have to stress ourselves out for years to earn a heart attack. As mentioned above, our hearts “remember” and hypertension is a muscle memory of the heart being stuck in stressful, past negatives. When our heart has stored up more past negatives than it can handle, it screams at us “Enough!” Like an angry Great White Shark, it turns on us in a most painful and often deadly way.
A Woman’s Heart
There is goodness in all of us, even if we’ve temporarily become “The Woman from Hell.” How do we get back to being “The Good Woman” –loving, open, compassionate and hopeful? By learning simple self-soothing behaviors that don’t cost us anything but a thought and a little time - like conscious breathing, meditation, or taking a walk. These simple acts, which we control, can counteract the overreaction of heart muscle memory that creates the hypertension wearing out our hearts prematurely and causing them to break down physically. Conscientiousness is the only predictor of longevity. By becoming more conscious of how we react during stressful situations and taking action to calm ourselves when we are stressed out, we can gain the strength we need to carry on.
The Time Cure
You are invited to visit our website, www.timecure.com, to view, free of charge, a 20 minute video - The River of Time. This relaxation meditation is like a mini-vacation where you will learn self soothing techniques as well as how to let go of past negatives, work towards a brighter future, and live in a more compassionate present. Malama pu'uwai - take care of your heart.
For more information on the effects of PTSD, see The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing,) and for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit www.timecure.com and www.lifehut.com.