You may be surprised to learn that you might be bringing unnecessary stress into your life by your own choices and lifestyle habits. It’s important to remember, even during times of stress, anxiety, or depression, that your heart health is vital to both your mental and physical wellbeing.
The Effects of Stress
During stress, your body releases adrenaline, the hormone that temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up, and raises your blood pressure1. These are normal reactions (the “fight or flight” response) that help you prepare to face a stressful situation. Constant stress, however, can have a negative wide-ranging effect on emotions, some of which include:
- Frequent headaches, jaw clenching or pain
- Neck ache, back pain, muscle spasms
- Unexplained or frequent “allergy” attacks
- Chest pain, palpitations, rapid pulse
- Depression, frequent or wild mood swings
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts
- Increased frustration, irritability, edginess2
Prolonged or chronic stress increases cortisol, the stress hormone, and can wreak havoc on your health by compromising your immune system and contributing to many diseases including high blood pressure. Research shows that excessive stress can affect lifestyle behaviors and factors that increase the risk of heart disease3.
- Sudden stress increases the pumping action and heart rate resulting in rising blood pressure.
- Stress alters the heart rhythms posing a risk for rhythm abnormalities in people with existing heart rhythm disturbances.
- Stress causes certain blood cells to become stickier.
- Stress impairs the clearance of fat molecules in the body making it more difficult to lose weight.
- Stress that leads to depression appears to be associated with an increased intima-medial thickness (a measure of the arteries that signifies worsening blood vessel disease)2.
Heart disease accounts for 1 in 7 deaths and remains the number 1 cause of death in the United States4.
Stressors, any event that causes the release of stress hormones, can be different for each person. Stressors can be helpful during emergency situations, meeting deadlines or reaching your goals. But stressful situations, such as divorce or job loss, can produce long, low-level stress that over time wears down the body’s immune system and increases the risk of heart disease and a variety of other health problems5.
When stress persists, it can often affect various organs and tissues all over the body including:
- Nervous system
- Musculoskeletal system
- Respiratory system
- Cardiovascular system
- Endocrine system
- Gastrointestinal system
- Reproductive system6
Tips to Reduce Stress
While we’re unable to rid ourselves from all inevitable stressors, fortunately, there are lifestyle changes and stress-reduction techniques you can practice to improve your response to stress and help minimize its damaging effects on your heart and overall health.
- Exercise. When you exercise, your body releases natural, mood-lifting chemicals that help you feel better. Your workout doesn’t have to be extreme; a short walk every day is all it takes.
- Nutrition. Eating meals that are balanced and portion-controlled will keep you mentally and physically healthy.
- Sleep. Poor sleeping habits can have a harmful effect on your mood. It is important to get plenty of sleep and rest. Most people need about seven to eight hours each night.
- Social Support. Talk with friends and family frequently. Think about joining a special-interest class or group. Volunteering is a great way to meet people while helping yourself and others.
- Deep Breathing. Taking a deep breath is an automatic and effective technique for winding down.
- Meditation. Studies have suggested that regular meditation can benefit the heart and help reduce blood pressure.
- Humor. Research shows that humor is an effective mechanism for coping with acute stress. It is recommended to keep a sense of humor during difficult situations. Laughter can release tension and help you maintain perspective, but it can also have physical effects that reduce stress hormone levels in your body.
- Avoid Alcohol Use. If you are going to drink alcohol, limit how often you drink, and practice moderation as alcohol may increase your risk of depression.
- Recognize When You Need Help. If you continue to have problems, are unable to overcome the difficult circumstance, or are thinking about suicide, talk to a professional counselor, psychologist or social worker2,7.
Adopting and maintaining healthy lifestyle behaviors is instrumental in preserving your health and preventing disease. Health is more than just the absence of disease; it is a resource that allows you to reach your goals, satisfy your needs and cope within your environment for more good years®.
- A.D.A.M. Stress