The heart rate, or pulse, is the number of times the heart muscle pumps per minute. The heart rate changes throughout the day and tends to be lower in the morning after a night's sleep and can go higher during exertion. These are normal fluctuations that occur as the heart muscle responds to the body's needs for blood and oxygen in various situations. However, if the heart rate becomes too high or is elevated chronically, problems can occur. One situation that can cause a high heart rate is stress. To prevent complications, the key is to understand how stress affects the heart rate and what steps can be taken to keep stress levels and the heart rate under control.
As the heart muscle pushes blood through the body, pressure is exerted against the blood vessel walls. This can be felt as the pulse or heart rate. The easiest place to feel the pulse is in the wrist, which is called the radial pulse, or in the neck, which is the carotid pulse. Placing the index and middle finger on one of these two spots and counting the number of times the pulse is felt will provide an individual's heart rate. The pulse can be counted for a full minute, or it can be counted for 10 seconds and then multiplied by six. According to the National Emergency Medical Association, a normal heart rate is between 60 to 90 beats per minute. Athletes can have heart rates as low as 40 and some individuals have a pulse of greater than 90 even though no disease is present. However, a heart rate that is consistently above 90 is considered high and should be evaluated.
Stress is a part of everyday life, but it is a subjective experience, according to the American Institute of Stress. What is stressful for one person may not cause stress in another. In addition, everyone responds to stress differently. Some take it in stride, while others have a hard time coping. In any situation where the body feels stressed, there is a chain reaction of events that are designed to help the body cope with the situation. Various chemicals are released to help the body fight or flee, which involves many changes in the body. This includes increasing the heart rate and rate of breathing to help deliver the extra blood and oxygen the body needs and suppressing the immune and digestive systems to help conserve energy. Then when the threat has passed, the body returns to a resting state.
While the stress response is a natural and helpful response in certain short-term situations, problems can arise when the stress response is activated constantly. This can occur if daily life becomes stressful due to family, work, financial or health problems. In these situations, the fight-or-flight response may never completely turn off, which keeps the body in a constant state of arousal. This can create health issues, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, because the hormones released during the stress response--such as adrenaline--make the heart muscle work harder and faster. Over time, this can lead to a chronically elevated heart rate, abnormal heart rhythms, heart failure, heart attacks and sudden cardiac death. This is especially a concern in those with heart disease. In addition, women more than men are at a higher risk of heart complications due to stress.
Although the stress response can elevate the heart rate, learning a meditation or relaxation technique to control stress can help bring the heart rate down. According to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, eliciting a calmer state called the relaxation response, can help to consciously slow brain wave activity, lower blood pressure and reduce the heart rate. This technique has proved helpful in managing heart disease and many other conditions when it is combined with proper medical care and healthy lifestyle choices.
Practicing meditation or relaxation techniques is not just about obtaining a peaceful state, it is also useful to reduce wear and tear on the body caused by stress, according to the Mayo Clinic. There are many forms of relaxation techniques that can be used. Sitting quietly and focusing on breathing or a word such as relax or peace, is a basic form. There are also techniques that use self-suggestions or imagery to help calm the body. There are also moving forms of meditation such as yoga and tai chi. Talking a walk, bike ride or swim can also be turned into a meditation practice. No matter what form is used, the goal is to shift the mind away from worrisome thoughts and allow the attention to be 100 percent on the breath, a word, an image or the activity being performed. This will send signals to the mind and body that it is OK to relax, which in turn can bring the heart rate down.
- National Emergency Medical Association: What You Should Know About Your Heart Rate or Pulse
- Journal of the American Medical Association: Acute Emotional Stress and the Heart
- Massachusetts General Hospital Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine: About the Institute
- Mayo Clinic: Relaxation Techniques: Essential for Reducing Stress