Stress is an undeniable fact of life. We can experience it anywhere - at home, at work, or even in a social setting. As a result, many people think that having stress is nothing out of the ordinary. However, this is true only to a certain extent.
Prolonged stress has been linked to a wide range of adverse health effects. Left unchecked, stress can take a severe toll on heart health. For people with heart conditions or those at risk, it is important to know how stress impacts heart health and deal with it effectively.
What is stress?
Stress can be defined as a physical and psychological response to the overwhelming struggles of life. It can also be described as the human body’s response to changes that necessitate a response or an adjustment. Stress often results in feelings of anger, excitement, frustration, and nervousness.
Stress can be caused by multiple factors. Some of the external factors include major life-changing events, stressful surrounding environment, work-related stress, etc. Fears, lack of control or uncertainty, and past experience and beliefs are some of the internal factors that cause stress.
When the human brain identifies a threat or a challenging situation, it stimulates the body to release hormones that raise the blood pressure and heart rate. This is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response of the body. Once the threat is no longer there, the body returns to its normal and relaxed state. While a small amount of stress offers some benefits, prolonged stress can lead to various health complications.
What are the symptoms of stress?
Stress is associated with certain physical, emotional, behavioural, and cognitive symptoms. Those are:
- Racing heart
- Muscle tension
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Aggressive behaviour – verbal or nonverbal
- Escape behaviours (such as sleeping or drinking)
- Poor diet (skipping meals or eating more)
- Avoiding things
- Lack of exercise
- Negative thoughts and ideas
- Poor judgment
- Memory impairment
Types of stress
Stress is broadly classified into two main types:
- Acute stress - This is short-term stress resulting from specific events and is the body's reaction to situations that involve challenges, unpredictability or perceived threat. This type of stress helps an individual manage dangerous situations. Nearly everybody experiences acute stress. It usually goes away quickly.
- Chronic stress - This is a type of stress that goes on for weeks or months at a stretch. A person may become so used to chronic stress that he or she may fail to identify it as a problem. Financial issues, unhappy relationships, or poor work-life balance are some of the factors that may lead to chronic stress. Left untreated, chronic stress can cause health problems.
Effects of chronic stress on heart health
Chronic stress is associated with various adverse effects on heart health. Some of those adverse effects include:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased inflammation in the body
- Surge in cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood
- Increased risk of arrhythmias (heart rhythm disorders), obesity, and diabetes.
The frequent and temporary surge in hormone levels and blood pressure caused by chronic stress can damage the arteries, heart, and kidneys. Moreover, conditions associated with chronic stress such as depression may make a person with pre-existing conditions like hypertension or heart disease forget to take their medications. All these factors can increase the risk of heart disease in the long run.
Stress can adversely affect heart health in an indirect way. A lot of people react to stress in an unhealthy manner. Stress causes people to eat too much or eat unhealthy foods, consume alcohol, smoke, lose sleep, and exercise less. All these behaviours are proven threats to heart health.
Tips to manage stress and protect heart health
It is important to recognize the stress triggers and take timely action to curb stress. Some of the measures that may help manage stress and reduce the risk of heart disease are:
- Stay positive: According to various studies, heart disease patients with a positive attitude are more likely to outlive those with a negative attitude. In fact, a good laugh can play a key role in improving heart health. People who laugh more have lower levels of stress hormones, less inflammation in the arteries, and more HDL (high-density lipoprotein) or "good" cholesterol.
- Meditate: Meditation has been found to be effective against hypertension - a major risk factor for heart disease. Even yoga and prayer can help relax the mind and body.
- Exercise: Engaging in physical activity or exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, a type of mood-boosting chemicals. Exercising offers multiple benefits. It reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, strengthens the muscles of the heart, and assists in maintaining a healthy weight.
- Unplug: Sometimes, it is important to leave everything behind and focus on oneself. Avoid social media and TV news. Take out some time each day - even 15 to 20 minutes - to escape from the world.
- Develop a stress relief strategy: All of us are different. As a result, what works for one may not work for everybody. People must identify what works for them be it listening to music, reading a book, or playing a favourite sport.
Stress can lead to various heart-related problems. It can increase the likelihood of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. While it may not be possible to avoid stress every time, it is possible to deal with it effectively. People who wish to protect their heart health can follow the above techniques to keep their stress under control.
Talk to a cardiologist if you have any questions related to heart health.