Heart Disease And Stress

For years, doctors have believed that those of us who are under a lot of stress have an increased risk of heart disease.

But there are many different definitions of stress, and many ways in which they can lead to coronary disease.

Although some research has been done into the link between stress and heart disease, current data does not yet support specific recommendations about stress reduction as a proven therapy for cardiovascular disease.

What kind of stress are we talking about?

When people refer to “stress,” they may be talking about two different things: physical stress, or emotional stress. Most of the medical literature on stress and heart disease refers to physical stress.

But when talking about stress, most of us are referring to the emotional pressure experienced in every day life.

Physical stress

Physical stress such as exercise, or other forms of physical exertion, places measurable demands on the heart. This physical stress is generally acknowledged to be good. In fact, the lack of physical stress (i.e. a sedentary lifestyle) constitutes a major risk factor for coronary artery disease. See staying active.

Generally, this kind of stress is usually considered to be good for the heart – as long as the heart is normal.

If there is underlying heart disease, however, too much physical stress can be dangerous. In a person who has coronary artery disease, for instance, exercise can place demands on the heart muscle that the diseased coronary arteries cannot meet, and the heart becomes ischemic (i.e., starved for oxygen.)

An ischemic heart muscle can cause either angina (chest pain), or a heart attack (the actual death of the cardiac muscle).

In summary, physical stress is generally good for you, and is to be encouraged, as long as you have a normal heart. On the other hand, with certain kinds of heart disease, too much or the wrong kind of physical exertion may be harmful.

Either way, physical stress does not cause heart disease.

Emotional stress

In our everyday lives, we often say we are feeling “stressed out”, and in saying this we are referring to emotional stress.

There is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that chronic emotional stress can be associated with heart disease and early death.

Several studies have documented that people without spouses die earlier than married people.

Other studies have shown fairly conclusively that people who have had recent major life changes (loss of a spouse or other close relative, loss of a job, moving to a new location) have a higher incidence of death. People who lose their tempers quickly have an increased risk of heart disease, some evidence suggests.

Does emotional stress cause heart disease?

A stressful situation leads to surge of certain hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, in the body.

Millions of years ago, our ancestors needed this surge of adrenaline to survive. Today, some believe the same adrenaline surge that accompanies a stressful situation is potentially harmful.

Therefore, 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.

Some studies also link stress to changes in the way blood clots, which increases the risk of heart attack.

Does Stress Affect Everyone the Same?

No. People respond in different ways to certain events and situations. One person may find an event joyful or satisfying while another 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.

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
  • 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
  • Unemployment
  • Retirement
  • Pregnancy
  • Relocation
  • Daily hassles
  • Legal problems
  • Financial concerns
How Can I Cope With Stress?

After you have identified the cause of stress in your life, the next step is to learn techniques that can help you cope with stress.

There are many techniques you can use to manage stress. Some of which you can learn yourself, while other techniques may require the guidance of a trained therapist.

Some common coping techniques include:

  • Eat and drink sensibly. Abusing alcohol and food may appear to reduce stress, but it actually adds to it.
  • Assert yourself. It’s ok to say no.
  • Stop smoking. Aside from the obvious health risks of cigarettes, nicotine acts as a stimulant and brings on more stress symptoms. Visit NHS Smokefree here.
  • Exercise regularly. See Staying Active.
  • Relax every day.
  • Take responsibility. Control what you can and leave behind what you cannot control.
  • Reduce causes of stress. Many people find life is filled with too many demands and too little time. For the most part, these demands are ones we have chosen. Effective time-management skills involve asking for help when appropriate, setting priorities, pacing yourself and taking time out for yourself.
  • Get enough rest.
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