Make no mistake, negative stressful worried thinking can lead to a heart attack. “We human beings,” states Robert Sapolsky of Stanford, “generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads, setting off wild emotions that provoke our bodies into an accompanying uproar, and it is all linked to mere thoughts.” Our brain cannot tell the difference between a real threat and one the mind made up. It treats fact or fiction the same way, triggering the release of toxic fight or flight stress hormones, like adrenaline, making us anxious, stressed and negative, and overworking our cardio-vascular system. Overtime, these reactions increase the risk of heart disease, the #1 cause of death in America. Chronic stress can develop into the aggressive, controlling workaholic that medical science calls Type-A personality, making a person seven times more likely to develop coronary artery disease.
I am not referring to a small segment of the population. Stress affects a whopping 75 percent of us, according to the Stress in America survey, the nation’s most reliable stress barometer, and nearly half of us lie awake at night worrying about the future.
The irony is that all this stress and worry is the result of believing thoughts that, more often than not, are untrue. Research has found that 85 percent of what people worried about never happened, and of the 15 percent that did come to pass, 79 percent resolved the problem better than expected. That means that 97 percent of the time people are stressing over something when there is nothing to worry about.
Thus, if we are worried, the overwhelming odds are it is the result of fearful thinking setting off primitive brain processes, which spike blood pressure and heart rate and switch our emotional state to threat mode, when no real threat is present.
As a result, what we will tend to see is some degree of gloom and doom and for as long as it lasts we will believe what we see is real because of its emotional charge. It can become an endless looping stress-provoking thought process damaging our heart until it eventually kills us. People I have coached or trained readily acknowledge the fallacy of their fear and worry yet continue to be stressed. Why? Because genetics can wire this kind of knee jerk reactivity into the brain, which means the problem is not entirely our fault. It is fair to say, The devil made me do it.
Here’s the Good News in All the Bad News
Genetics and past traumas can wire our brain for a hyperactive stress response system, dragging our mind and our day into these self-defeating bouts of anxious, worried, stress-provoking thinking that compromise our well-being. The good news is we can literally rewire those faulty neural-circuits through a change in attitude, enabling us to quiet the lower brain’s fight or flight reactions easily when they raise their ugly head and to address problems with the intelligence and creativity of our higher brain. There is also growing evidence that a shift in attitude to the positive can also down-regulate the stress gene reversing a genetic disposition to stress.
Making this shift is simpler than you might imagine and tangible change can occur quickly. Here are some of the simple steps, when done consistently, begin to build and sustain the positive mindset that breaks the fall into primitive brain processes that can lock us into a life of stress:
- Drive home in the slow lane and listen to calming music instead of the news on the drive home.
- Once in a while, choose the longest line at a store and stand in it, letting go of your mind’s sense of hurry and choosing to be at peace.
- Take breaks during the day and go for a walk or just look out a window for a few minutes and let your mind go. Watch the wind blow or the sun shine or the rain fall and take in the beauty of life
- Smile more today.
- Practice listening better, judging less, forgiving more, and holding people with an unconditional positive regard.
- Buy a small gift for a loved one.
- Call a friend or relative you haven’t talked to in a while.
- Practice receiving compliments graciously.
- Accept that your imperfect and that life is unfinished business.
- Practice making the conscious choice to be peaceful and happy inside, regardless of what is happening outside.
- When you feel conflict today, tell yourself, “I am not going to let this person or situation control how I feel.”
- Measure your success at the end of each day by asking yourself … was I kind … did I stop to smell the roses … was I respectful to others … did I forgive … did I choose to be happy … did I turn stress into excitement and excitement into believing … was I grateful …was I at peace
 Sonya Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (New York: Penguin Group, 2007), 19-22.
 Dusek JA, Otu HH, Wohlhueter AL, Bhasin M, Zerbini LF, et al. Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2576. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002576 (2008).