Are stress and heart disease related? Does stress increase the risk of heart disease? Stress is a normal part of life. But if left unmanaged, stress can lead to emotional, psychological, and even physical problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, chest pains, or irregular heart beats.
How Does Stress Increase the Risk for Heart Disease?
Medical researchers aren’t sure exactly how stress increases the risk of heart disease. Stress itself might be a risk factor, or it could be that high levels of stress make other risk factors (such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure) worse.
For example, if you are under stress, your blood pressure goes up, you may overeat, you may exercise less, and you may be more likely to smoke.
If stress itself is a risk factor for heart disease, it could be because chronic stress exposes your body to unhealthy, persistently elevated levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Studies also link stress to changes in the way blood clots, which increases the risk of heart attack.
Can managing stress reduce or prevent heart disease?
Managing stress is a good idea for your overall health, and researchers are currently studying whether managing stress is effective for heart disease. A few studies have examined how well treatment or therapies work in reducing the effects of stress on cardiovascular disease.
Studies using psychosocial therapies – involving both psychological and social aspects – are promising in the prevention of second heart attacks.
After a heart attack or stroke, people who feel depressed, anxious or overwhelmed by stress should talk to their doctor or other healthcare professionals.
What can you do about stress?
Exercising, maintaining a positive attitude, not smoking, not drinking too much coffee, enjoying a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight are good ways to deal with stress, said Schiffrin, who is also the Canada research chair in hypertension and vascular research at Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research.
“All those people are doing the right thing,” said Schiffrin, a volunteer with the American Heart Association.
Medicines are helpful for many things, but usually not for stress. Some people take tranquilizers to calm them down immediately, but it’s far better in the long term to learn to manage your stress through relaxation or stress management techniques.
Be careful not to confuse stress with anxiety. If you suffer from anxiety, speak with your doctor a treatment or management plan including whether you need medication. Figuring out how stress pushes your buttons is an important step in dealing with it.
When you’re under stress, do you:
- eat to calm down?
- speak and eat very fast?
- drink alcohol or smoke?
- rush around but do not get much done?
- work too much?
- sleep too little, too much or both?
- slow down?
- try to do too many things at once?
Engaging in even one of these behaviors may mean that you are not dealing with stress as well as you could.
If your stress is nonstop, stress management classes can also help. Look for them at community colleges, rehab programs, in hospitals or by calling a therapist in your community.
Does Stress Affect Everyone the Same?
No. People respond in different ways to events and situations. One person may find an event joyful and gratifying, but another person may find the same event miserable and frustrating.
Sometimes, people may handle stress in ways that make bad situations worse by reacting with feelings of anger, guilt, fear, hostility, anxiety, and moodiness. Others may face life’s challenges with ease.
What Causes Stress?
Stress can be caused by a physical or emotional change, or a change in your environment that requires you to adjust or respond. Things that make you feel stressed are called “stressors.”
Stressors can be minor hassles, major lifestyle changes, or a combination of both. Being able to identify stressors in your life and releasing the tension they cause are the keys to managing stress.
How Can I Cope With Stress?
After you’ve identified the cause of stress in your life, the next step is to learn techniques that can help you cope with stress while fighting heart disease.
There are many techniques you can use to manage stress. Some of which you can learn yourself, while other techniques may require the guidance of a trained therapist.
Some common techniques for coping with stress include:
Eat and drink sensibly. Abusing alcohol and food may seem to reduce stress, but it actually adds to it.
Assert yourself. You do not have to meet others’ expectations or demands. It’s OK to say “no.”
Remember, being assertive allows you to stand up for your rights and beliefs while respecting those of others.
Stop smoking. Aside from the obvious health risks of cigarettes, nicotine acts as a stimulant and brings on more stress symptoms.
- Exercise regularly. Choose non-competitive exercise and set reasonable goals. Aerobic exercise has been shown to release endorphins (natural substances that help you feel better and maintain a positive attitude.)
- Relax every day. Choose from a variety of different techniques (see below).
- Take responsibility. Control what you can and leave behind what you cannot control.
- Reduce causes of stress. Many people find life is filled with too many demands and too little time. For the most part, these demands are ones we have chosen. Effective time-management skills involve asking for help when appropriate, setting priorities, pacing yourself, and taking time out for yourself.
- Examine your values and live by them. The more your actions reflect your beliefs, the better you will feel, no matter how busy your life is.
- Set realistic goals and expectations. It’s OK, and healthy, to realize you cannot be 100% successful at everything all at once.
- Sell yourself to yourself. When you are feeling overwhelmed, remind yourself of what you do well. Have a healthy sense of self-esteem.
- Get enough rest. Even with proper diet and exercise, you can’t fight stress effectively without rest. You need time to recover from exercise and stressful events. The time you spend resting should be long enough to relax your mind as well as your body. Some people find that taking a nap in the middle of the day helps them reduce stress.