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A little stress in our lives serves to keep us on our toes, but too much can lead to health problems, interrupted sleep, emotional issues and poor decision-making. And while it’s difficult to measure something like stress and its negative impact on heart health, experts say the correlation shouldn’t be overlooked.
Ashesh Parikh, D.O., a cardiologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and Texas Health Heart & Vascular Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, says stress can lead to serious cardiovascular issues.
“Stress, whether emotional or physical, has been linked to what is called as takotsubo cardiomyopathy or ‘broken-heart’ syndrome,” he explains. “Events such as the loss of a loved one or acute illness can lead to all of the symptoms of a heart attack, and patients [may] develop significant congestive heart failure. Luckily, this is reversible with use of medications and alleviation of the stressful situation.”
According to the American Heart Association, when constant stress keeps your body in a perpetual state of “fight or flight,” your elevated blood pressure can damage walls of the arteries.
Parikh adds that stress can lead to physical problems and an increase in risky behavior.
“Stress leads to a release of adrenaline, which is a hormone known to increase heart rate and blood pressure,” he says. “Stress has been shown to increase cardiac risk factors such as high blood pressure, inactivity, elevated cholesterol, smoking, drinking and diabetes. All of these conditions increase individuals’ risks for developing heart disease.”
While medication may be helpful for people dealing with true anxiety, it usually isn’t effective in managing stress because the two are different. Stress is better managed by practicing relaxation and other positive stress management techniques. If you begin to recognize the stressors in your life and the resulting negative responses, it can help you to learn to choose more positive ways of dealing with stressful situations.
The following are behaviors provided by the AHA that may signal negative stress reactions:
- Eating quickly or to calm down
- Speaking very fast
- Drinking alcohol or smoking
- Rushing around (with poor results) or trying to do too much at once (poor focus)
- Working too much
- Slowing down noticeably or procrastinating
- Sleeping too much or too little
Stress may be a normal part of life, but how we respond to it can often make all the difference between whether we let it harm us or not. The AHA recommends positive self-talk as one of the most important ways to battle stress. Tell yourself you’ll do your best and take things one step at a time, instead of thinking you can’t do something. Learn from previous experiences to do things differently this time, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
While practicing self-care like listening to calming music, spending time with friends or going for a walk is a great idea, there is perhaps no better way to deal with stress than by exercising. Working out not only relieves stress, but also boosts mood, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, reduces risk for heart disease and stroke, helps control blood sugar, improves sleep quality and can help a person lose or maintain weight.
Parikh says limiting risk and actively working to prevent stress will help fend off early heart problems for increasingly younger patients.
“To help deal with stress, we encourage all our patients to maintain a healthy diet, get a good night’s sleep and try to exercise regularly,” he recommends. “Within our local DFW area, there are certain cities where the population of patients are much younger than 65 years of age. We are seeing more and more young patients develop hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes. This is mainly due to the fast-paced and stressful lives they lead with work, kids’ school/activities and often also supporting their own parents.
“More research is definitely needed to evaluate the direct cause of stress and its effect on heart health, but trying to manage the heart disease risk factors and primary prevention remain the cornerstones for us all to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”