Stress and Your Health

Everyone experiences stress from time to time and reacts to it differently. But did you know that too much stress can affect your health – and in particular, your heart?

The good news is that there are ways to tell when stress might be taking its toll and steps you can take to help manage it.

How Stress Affects Your Heart

If you have a heart condition, it’s understandable to feel stressed due to pending medical procedures, especially if those procedures carry a risk of serious complications. Even waiting for test results or researching your condition can be sources of stress. But it’s important to manage how you are coping with it.

In the human body, stress sets off a chain of reactions. Your body releases adrenaline, which causes your heart rate and breathing to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. This can be a helpful response when you need a burst of energy to deal with an immediate situation.

But when stress is ongoing, your body remains in this high gear for an extended period, and that can affect your well-being. In addition to raising your blood pressure, which is not good for your heart, a lot of stress can cause headaches, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and other problems.

In addition, stress may lead to behaviors that increase your risk of a heart problem. Some people respond to stress by smoking, drinking alcohol, overeating, and being physically inactive. But these behaviors, too, can result in high blood pressure and damage to the walls of your arteries.

Scientists have known for a long time that stress can influence heart health. In 2017, a group of researchers found out how. They studied scans of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain associated with fear and stress, and found a connection between amygdala activity and cardiovascular events such as heart attack, stroke and heart failure.

Gauging Your Stress Level

It’s not always easy to tell when stress builds to the point where it becomes too much. But often, your body will give you certain warning signs. According to the Cleveland Clinic in the U.S.A., these signs include:

  • Feeling like you can’t cope with things that you are usually able to handle
  • Feeling anxious, angry, irritable or tense
  • Getting headaches or stiffness in your muscles, jaw or back
  • Having an upset stomach, skin rashes, a racing heartbeat or sweaty palms
  • Having trouble remembering things or concentrating
  • Feeling more tired than usual or having less energy
  • Having trouble sleeping

Managing Stress

So what can you do to help your body handle stress? The American Heart Association suggests these tips:

  • Being physically active, even something as simple as taking a slow walk
  • Keeping a positive attitude
  • Not smoking
  • Not drinking too much coffee or alcohol
  • Enjoying a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight

Some people find that stress management classes help a great deal. You can find them offered at community colleges, cardiac rehabilitation programs, hospitals, or by calling a therapist in your area. A 2016 study found that adding stress management training to a standard cardiac rehabilitation program not only reduced the stress levels of the participants, but it also reduced their cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and angina by nearly half. Support groups are another option to help relieve stress when you share your concerns with others in similar circumstances.

If your concerns and stress are related to a specific procedure you are having, talk with your doctor. There may be information they can share or measures that can be taken to address the source of your concerns. For instance, the thought of having a stroke during or after a heart procedure can be very stressful. But in some cases, there may be ways to reduce the risk, such as using a cerebral embolic protection device during TAVI (transcatheter aortic valve implantation).

Some people take medicine to help calm down, but experts say it’s better in the long run to learn to manage your stress. So the next time you feel signs of stress overload, take a few minutes to think about what you can do to control it. Your heart will thank you.