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.
Stress and Your Heart
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.
And your body’s response to stress may be a headache, 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.
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.
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.
Below are some common stressors that can affect people at all stages of life.
Illness, either personal or of a family member or friend.
- Death of a friend or loved one.
- Problems in a personal relationship.
- Work overload.
- Starting a new job.
- Daily hassles.
- Legal problems.
- Financial concerns.
What Are the Warning Signs of Stress?
When you are exposed to long periods of stress, your body gives warning signals that something is wrong. These physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral warning signs should not be ignored.
They tell you that you need to slow down.
If you continue to be stressed and you don’t give your body a break, you are likely to develop health problems like heart disease. You could also worsen an existing illness.
How Can I Keep a Positive Attitude?
A positive attitude and self-esteem are good defenses against stress and heart disease because they help you view stress as a challenge rather than a problem.
A positive attitude keeps you in control when there are inevitable changes in your life. A positive attitude means telling yourself there are things you can do to improve certain situations and admitting that sometimes there’s nothing you can do.
To maintain a positive attitude during a stressful situation (or to prepare yourself for a potentially stressful situation), keep these tips in mind:
- Stay calm. Stop what you’re doing. Breathe deeply. Reflect on your choices.
- Always tell yourself you can get through the situation.
- Try to be objective, realistic and flexible.
- Try to keep the situation in perspective. Think about the possible solutions. Choose one that is the most acceptable and feasible.
- Think about the outcome: Ask yourself, what is the worst possible thing that can happen? (Chances are that won’t happen)
- Tell yourself that you can learn something from every situation.
How Can I Reduce My Stressors?
While it is impossible to live your life completely stress-free, it is possible to reduce the harmful effects of certain stressors on you and your heart. Here are some suggestions:
First identify the stressor. What’s causing you to feel stressed?
- Avoid hassles and minor irritations if possible. If traffic jams cause you stress, try taking a different route, riding the train or bus, or car-pooling.
- When you experience a change in your life, try to continue doing the things that you enjoyed before the change occurred.
- Learn how to manage your time effectively, but be realistic and flexible when you plan your schedule.
- Do one thing at a time; concentrate on each task as it comes.
- Take a break when your stressors compile to an uncontrollable level.
- Ask for help if you feel that you are unable to deal with stress on your own.
Guidelines for Healthy Eating to Fight Stress
- Eat a wide variety of healthy foods.
- Eat in moderation — control the portions of the foods you eat.
- Reach a healthy weight and maintain it.
- Eat at least 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
- Eat food that is high in dietary fiber such as whole grain cereals, legumes, and vegetables.
- Minimize your daily fat intake. Choose foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Limit your consumption of sugar and salt.
- Limit the amount of alcohol that you drink.
- Make small changes in your diet over time.
- Combine healthy eating habits with a regular exercise program.
What if Sleep Problems Are Contributing to my Stress
If you cannot sleep and it’s causing you stress or making it worse, try these tips:
- Establish a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
- Make sure your bed and surroundings are comfortable. Arrange the pillows so you can maintain a comfortable position.
- Keep your bedroom dark and quiet.
- Use your bedroom for sleeping only; don’t work or watch TV in your bedroom.
- Avoid napping too much during the day. At the same time, remember to balance activity with rest during recovery.
- If you feel nervous or anxious, talk to your spouse, partner, or a trusted friend. Get your troubles off your mind.
- Listen to relaxing music.
- Talk to your doctor before taking any sleeping aid.
- Take diuretics or “water pills” earlier, if possible, so you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
- If you can’t sleep, get up and do something relaxing until you feel tired. Don’t stay in bed worrying about when you’re going to fall asleep.
- Avoid caffeine.
- Don’t exercise within two to three hours of bedtime.