Heart Health and Stress: Digging Deeper to Make Changes

If you’re anything like us — health nerds, that is — you know that it’s American Heart Month. During February, organizations across the U.S. promote heart health. So you’ve probably read something recently about the connection between heart health and stress. (If you haven’t, you can read about it here, here, here, or here.)

It’s a great time to think about potential stressors in your own life and healthy living for your heart. But we at the Institute of Family & Community Impact always like to dig a little deeper. When we talk about stress, we mean more than the big project due at work or juggling family responsibilities.

Those things are important, of course. But let’s not forget those who live, and have lived, in situations of toxic stress. Because their hearts need particular love and care.

What Is Toxic Stress?

Toxic stress differs from what we normally think of as “stress.” Stress turns toxic when it’s sustained and unbearable. Usually, that means living in an environment that is inherently and profoundly stressful. Poverty, of course, is a major factor in toxic stress. So are racism, homelessness, abusive relationships, violence, addiction, and more.

When you live every day with stress, it becomes expected. Your body physically changes to deal with it. Since your heart is part of your stress response system, this can put a strain on it. Certainly, your heart needs to get a workout sometimes. That’s the idea behind cardio. But when your stress response is always on high alert, your heart has to keep pumping hard and fast so that your body is ready at a moment’s notice.

You’re not built for that. No one, especially not children, should have to live in a state of constant stress and worry. Yet, sadly, many do. And we know that this kind of stress can have long-lasting impact on health.

Heart Health, Stress, and ACEs

Toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are deeply intertwined. ACEs often cause toxic stress in vulnerable children’s lives, and thus may affect their bodies from a young age. The more ACEs a person has, the higher risk they have for a number of future health issues.

One increased risk is higher rates of cardiovascular disease. Since heart disease is the leading cause of death among Americans, you can understand why it’s important to us to identify opportunities for prevention. Beyond that, though, we believe in reducing suffering wherever possible.

We can’t solve all of society’s problems, of course. So we focus on what we can do. We can give children and families the tools they need to build resiliency and reduce stress. In fact, we designed our Joyful Together program to do just that.

We also can give hope. Just because ACEs and toxic stress might impact your health and well-being down the road doesn’t mean they will. Like the problems they combat, early interventions for children and families can have long-lasting effects. So we need to make sure we are making positive impacts wherever we can.

What You Can Do

Often, when we talk about toxic stress, people wonder how they can possibly help. Sometimes, the problem seems so big and pervasive. It’s easier (and still important!) to pass along health tips for reducing individual stress than try to change entire social systems.

But you can have a positive impact on your community. By supporting and promoting programs that address toxic stress and ACEs, you can affect change. That’s one of the reasons we developed our own model for combating toxic stress and adversity in children, Joyful Together. Joyful Together builds resiliency and reduces stress by infusing everyday activities with joy and play. Our hope is that we can be part of the solution in creating long-term, positive health benefits, starting in childhood.

Efforts like this are foundations we need to lay so that others can build upon it. We won’t always see the changes we help make, but we know those changes will happen if we are dedicated, caring, and informed.

And that starts in the heart.

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