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How Stress Relates to Heart Disease

To say that 2020 was a stressful year would likely be an understatement for many of us and learning how to manage that stress was a challenge in and of itself. Everyone experiences stress differently and reacts to it in different ways. Regardless of your situation, significant or prolonged stress can lead to a variety of health issues.

According to The American Heart Association:

More research is needed to determine how stress contributes to heart disease — the leading killer of Americans. But stress may affect behaviors and factors that increase heart disease risk: high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating. Some people may choose to drink too much alcohol or smoke cigarettes to “manage” their chronic stress, however these habits can increase blood pressure and may damage artery walls.


A stressful situation sets off a chain of events. Your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. These reactions prepare you to deal with the situation — the "fight or flight" response.

When stress is constant, your body remains in high gear off and on for days or weeks at a time. Although the link between stress and heart disease isn’t clear, chronic stress may cause some people to drink too much alcohol which can increase your blood pressure and may damage the artery walls. (1)


RESPONSES TO STRESS

As mentioned previously, everyone responds to stress differently. Some may suffer from headaches, back strain or stomach pains. Stress can also zap your energy, wreak havoc on your sleep and make you feel cranky, forgetful and out of control.1 Additional responses to stress include feelings of anxiety, anger, depression and impatience.


When you are under stress do you eat, drink alcohol, smoke, work too much, procrastinate, sleep too little or too much or take on more responsibilities? If so, it likely means you are not dealing with stress as well as you should. Keep in mind, the use of alcohol, tobacco and caffeine can increase feelings of anxiety and increase your stress level and blood pressure.


MANAGING STRESS

Although you cannot always control the stressors that are affecting your life, you can take steps to better manage how you respond to them. Whenever possible, try to control your mental and physical reactions to stressful situations. Below are ways to help manage and reduce your stress levels.

Exercise

Exercising for at least 30 minutes per day, four to five days per week, can help improve cardiovascular health by controlling weight, improving cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. People who exercise have a reduced physical response to stress. Their blood pressure and heart rates don't rise as high under stress as people who don't exercise. Regular exercise can also reduce the risk of depression, another risk factor for heart disease. (2)


Talk It Out

Whether to yourself or to others, talking through what is stressing you out can help reduce your stress. Practicing positive self-talk and focusing on turning a negative frame of mind into a positive one can work wonders. Instead of ‘I hate this,’ or ‘I can’t control this,’ think ‘I can handle this. I have done it before and can do it again.’ Maintaining an upbeat attitude and having a good laugh can help your heart by lowering stress hormone levels, reducing inflammation in your arteries and increasing HDL or “good cholesterol”. Optimal levels of HDL are 60mg/dL for both men and women.


Alternatively, building a support system of friends, family, neighbors, and loved ones can reduce your stress. Having at least one person you can rely on and talk to takes a heavy burden off you. Also - research shows that a lack of social support increases the chance of engaging in unhealthy behaviors. (2)


Finally, if you have constant feelings of depression or anxiety, talk with your doctor or pharmacist about medications that may help.


Do Something Fun

Read a book, go for a walk, take a bath or listen to your favorite music. Taking some time just for you every day will help you regain feelings of control over your environment. Avoiding things like reading emails, watching TV, and scrolling on social media, even for 15 to 30 minutes each day, will also help you break way from the stressors in this world.


Try Meditation

The practice of inward-focused thought and deep breathing has been shown to reduce heart disease risk factors like high blood pressure. Anyone can learn to meditate. Take a few minutes to sit somewhere quiet, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Meditation’s close relatives – yoga and prayer – can also relax the mind and body.4 In 2020 meditation apps became increasingly popular to help calm the mind. Click here to review the best meditation apps, according to Healthline.com.


GET SCREENED

Did you know that 80% of heart disease and stroke events are preventable through lifestyle changes? Knowing your risk is the first step. Get your annual physical and talk with your doctor about any health concerns you may have. Below is a review of the most common cardiovascular disease screening tests: (3)

  • Blood Pressure. High blood pressure is a serious condition, and over time can damage blood vessels or cause blood clots, both of which could lead to a stroke. (3)

  • Cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that sometimes binds with protein to cause plaque buildup in the arteries, which can lead to blood clots and risk of stroke or heart attack. Cholesterol levels in the blood are one of many factors that help determine your risk for developing plaque buildup in the arteries. (3)

  • Body Weight. Having a BMI of 25 or higher increases your risk for developing cardiovascular disease. It is important to actively manage your weight to help reduce long term risk. (3)

  • Blood Glucose. Blood glucose is very important to your survival: it is the primary energy source for the brain, and critical to cells and tissues in your body. Diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2) causes your body to have too much glucose in your bloodstream, and that can damage your health in a myriad of ways. (3)

While it is impossible to avoid stress completely throughout your life, you can take action to help control how it affects you. The key is to learn to determine where your stressors lie and focus on the things you can change. Taking time to address and improve your quality of life will help protect you from increased risk for heart disease and other stress-related disorders.


1. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/stress-and-heart-health

2. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=2171

3. https://www.lifelinescreening.com/screening-services/heart-disease-and-stroke

https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/stress-and-your-heart