Soothing Stress for a Stronger Heart: 4 Evidence-Based Methods to Enhance Cardiovascular Resilience

Cathe Friedrich's Perfect Flow workout can help relieve stress

Stress is an unavoidable part of life. It rears its ugly head in family dynamics, finances, and in the daily aspects of life, like dealing with traffic on a day when you’re already late for work. Dealing with it can steal your time, well-being, and confidence. Chronic stress can also raise your risk for cardiovascular disease – the leading cause of death worldwide.

How does stress affect one of the most important organs in your body, your heart? When you feel threatened or anxious, your body reacts by unleashing a cascade of physiological changes from a rapid heartbeat, tightened blood vessels, and a surge in cortisol, a stress hormone. These physiological changes serve you well in the short-term by preparing your body for “fight or flight,” but they aren’t beneficial long term. When you have unrelenting stress without the opportunity for your body to recover, it triggers inflammation and places wear and tear on your cardiovascular system.

Fortunately, you can regain control over your body’s stress response, so it doesn’t control you. By having coping mechanisms to deal with daily stressors, you’ll tame your body’s stress response and reduce the strain on your heart.

Tap Into the Power of Mindfulness

In hurried modern life where it’s one thing after another, carving out time for stillness or quiet contemplation feels like an insurmountable challenge. But take at least a few minutes several times a day to rest your mind. Do it for your mental health but also for your heart.  According to scientists, adopting the mindfulness habit has cardiovascular benefits.

Mindfulness trains your mind nonjudgmentally to tune into the present moment. When you do this, even for a few minutes it helps tame your racing thoughts. This reduces physiological arousal and the side effects that go with it, like a racing heart and spikes in blood pressure and inflammation. These changes place more strain on your cardiovascular system.

How can you get these benefits? Think in terms of 5- or 10-minute habits. Even a few minutes of mindful breathing, yoga, or meditation can benefit your heart and mental health. One study found that people who meditated just ten to fifteen minutes daily for eight weeks experience a significant drop in blood pressure and heart rate.

Make mindfulness part of your day too. When you eat, tune into what’s on your plate and express gratitude as you consciously chew each bite. Doing this will also help you be more aware of hunger cues. In turn that can help you better control your weight. That’s important, as obesity is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Adopt mindfulness early. Begin with five minutes of focused breathing when you first wake up in the morning. You could also meditate or write in a journal. How you start the morning sets the tone for the day. Will you feel anxious or calm? By making mindfulness a pillar of self-care, you emerge calmer, more focused, and buffered from the stresses jeopardizing your ticker.

Deep Breathing

How’s your breathing? Most people aren’t aware of their breath. But during times when you’re stressed out, you’re breathing fast and shallowly. And when you take fast, shallow breaths, it activates your body’s “fight or flight” response. This ramps up your body’s stress response and gives you the jitters.

Learning to control how you breathe is one way to counter stress and anxiety. Science shows conscious and controlled breathing, especially a type called diaphragmatic breathing, has a calming effect that lowers blood pressure and slows heart rate. It also boosts heart rate variability, a marker for better cardiovascular health. Plus, activating the relaxation response indirectly benefits the health of your heart.

Here’s how to do diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Sit up straight or lie down on your back. Keep your shoulders relaxed.
  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose. Feel your stomach push out against your hand as the diaphragm lowers and lets air fill the lungs.
  • Purse your lips slightly and breathe out very slowly through the mouth. Feel the hand on your stomach go inwards.

Repeat the above for five to ten cycles, breathing deeply and focusing on using your diaphragm. Make sure your exhales are slow and controlled.

You can also try counting – inhale for four counts, hold for two counts, exhale for six counts. Choose a rhythm that’s comfortable for you and note how your body responds. Stop if you start to feel lightheaded and let your body recover before trying again. With practice, you will be able to take slower, deeper breaths without dizziness.

Learn to breathe from your belly, rather than from your chest. Also, prolong your exhales, so you’re exhaling longer than you’re inhaling. Use calming, focused deep breathing to relax when you feel the pressure rise. Know that this approach is better for your heart.

Quality Sleep

You need quality sleep for mental and physical health – and for the health of your heart. Research shows that people who have certain sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, are at higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. So, check with your doctor if you snore frequently, feel unusually sleepy during the day, wake up throughout the night, or have other symptoms of sleep apnea.

But not getting enough sleep, independent of sleep apnea, can place your heart in jeopardy. When you are chronically sleep-deprived, it can disrupt your immune system, lead to inflammation, and trigger the release of excess cortisol. (also harmful to your heart). Plus, it affects appetite hormones in a way that can lead to weight gain or obesity.

In addition, getting a good night’s sleep is one of the ways your body recovers from a stressful day. A good night’s sleep helps regulate hormone release, including hormones and neurotransmitters that help regulate your emotions. So, work on sleep hygiene and adopt habits like limiting screen time at night and sleeping in complete darkness and in a cool sleeping area. Be consistent with your bedtime and wake time. It matters!

Avoid Loneliness

Get out into the world and talk to people. According to Harvard Health, people who are lonely are at modestly higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to those who have a strong support network. The level of risk is comparable to other major factors like smoking and obesity. It turns out that being lonely may trigger the same issues that chronic stress does – inflammation, increased blood pressure, and tightening of blood vessels. If you don’t have a family or closeknit group of friends, consider volunteering or getting involved in a hobby or sport you can do with others.

Manage Stress for a Healthier Heart

Chronic stress contributes to systemic inflammation, subtle cardiovascular damage, and wear and tear on your heart. But through lifestyle approaches like mindfulness, deep breathing, quality sleep, social connection, and more, you can mitigate its effects. So, carve out time for self-care, even when you’re busy. Your heart and blood vessels will thank you.


  • Meditation to Boost Health and Well-Being. www.heart.org. Published July 30, 2019. Accessed January 17, 2024. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/mental-health-and-wellbeing/meditation-to-boost-health-and-wellbeing
  • ‌”Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta ….” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25910392/.
  • “Take a Deep, Resisted, Breath | Journal of the American Heart Association.” 29 Jun. 2021, ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.121.022203.
  • “Breathing exercises to lower your blood pressure.” 01 Sept. 2023, health.harvard.edu/heart-health/breathing-exercises-to-lower-your-blood-pressure.
  • “Does loneliness play a role in cardiovascular problems?.” 01 Aug. 2018, health.harvard.edu/heart-health/does-loneliness-play-a-role-in-cardiovascular-problems.

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