Stress affects your heart in many ways, from high blood pressure to a weakened immune system. However, there are steps you can take to reduce negative impact.
We’ve all been there. The deadline is looming and you’re starting to feel the heat — a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms and feelings of anxiety all come into play. Stress isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s a common response to the demands of everyday life and at times, it can be one of our best motivators. However, too much or unmanaged stress can negatively affect your health.
How stress affects your heart
Stress can affect behaviors that increase your risk factors for heart disease, which is the leading cause of death among Americans. Additionally, when we’re in stressful situations, we often turn to behaviors that can make our heart health even worse. Smoking, overeating, overuse of drugs or alcohol and frantic behavior are all common examples. This behavior can cause:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol and artery damage
- Irregular heartbeats
- Chest pain
- A weakened immune system
“Stress and anxiety play a really big role in cardiovascular health overall,” says Alex Moseley, MD, a cardiologist at Mercy Health – Fairfield Hospital in our Cincinnati market. “Both acute and chronic stress can lead to things like high blood pressure and strokes, and we’ve known for a long time that they increase cardiovascular events.”
High blood pressure is the leading cause of death worldwide. And while a day or two of high stress won’t cause long-term high blood pressure or other heart problems, it’s important to understand that too much stress for too long can. Because stress raises blood pressure, it can also cause blood clots, which make heart attacks more likely.
It’s especially important to take time to recover after traumatic events, such as breaking up with a significant other or experiencing the death of a relative. This type of traumatic stress can cause broken heart syndrome, which can disrupt the way the heart pumps blood.
Recognizing the signs of stress
Your body’s response to stress is called going into a “fight-or-flight” response. It’s the natural defense mechanism your body has to protect itself.
From there, the stress hormone cortisol is released at high levels in your body whenever you are experiencing any type of stress. Cortisol is not all bad – it plays a role in many other aspects of your body, like regulating your metabolism, blood pressure, blood sugar and sleep-wake cycle. It’s also released during exercise to help your body respond to the intensity of your activity, then decreases soon after in recovery.
However, higher-than-normal cortisol levels can impact your health in a negative way, especially when those levels are sustained for a longer period of time.
Some of the physical symptoms of chronic stress can include, but are not limited to:
- Chest pain
- Digestive system issues
- Elevated heart rate
- Difficulty sleeping
- Weakened immune system
Tips for managing stress
The good news is that if you feel stress coming on, there’s a host of activities that can help you reduce stress. The first is to better understand your own stress levels. Once you know you’re in a state of stress, choose one of these stress-reducing activities that best suits you:
- Making time to connect with positive people
- Embracing quiet time through meditation, yoga or journaling
- Getting plenty of quality sleep
Learning to accept what you can’t control and knowing when to say “no” to stressful activities are also important. Remember that your heart health is more important than people-pleasing. There are also many stress management books and stress-reduction classes available to teach you effective ways to manage stress.
“Learning to manage both acute and chronic stress has really powerful impacts on the heart,” Dr. Moseley says.
When to reach out to a provider
While there are plenty of avenues to explore to lower stress and protect your heart health, you may find that you’re unable to do so on your own. If you’re concerned, reach out to your primary care physician. They are a great starting point because they’re familiar with your health history and can take your personal risk factors into account.
If more specialized treatment is necessary, your primary care physician can make informed recommendations for your specific needs.
Want to learn more about your heart health? Take our online heart risk assessment today.
Also, learn about the heart and vascular care services we provide at Mercy Health.