Stress is a part of everyday life. It takes on many forms: a daily stressor like getting to your job on time; a negative major life event like the loss of a relationship; and even a positive major life event like moving into a new house. Over time, as stress builds up, your health can become compromised. One of the most significant ways that stress can harm your health is an increased risk for heart disease.
It is important to learn how to manage your stress to protect your heart and improve your overall general wellbeing for a healthier and more productive life.
What are the types of stress?
Acute stress is a response to a sudden or frightening situation like getting startled or getting cut off in traffic. This type of stress is typically temporary with no lasting effects on your health.
But acute stress can impact your health if your body doesn’t fully recover after a stressful event.
Severe acute stress such as a traumatic or life-threatening event that remains stressful.
Frequent instances of acute stress where stress is experienced multiple times throughout a day or during a week, such as at a job, or due to a mental health condition like anxiety disorder.
Chronic stress is when stress doesn’t go away, sometimes up to months. This is often due to major stressors like life changes and concerns about employment, health or money as well as mental health conditions.
Chronic stress affects all aspects of the body and negatively impacts your heart.
How does my body respond to stress?
Your hypothalamus, the area of your brain that regulates your body’s processes, tells your body to release stress hormones when you experience any type of stress. These hormones trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your breathing quickens, your muscles tense and your heart rate increases, allowing your body to cope with the new situation.
Cortisol is one of those stress hormones. Cortisol helps your body adapt during brief periods of stress. But keeping cortisol in your bloodstream over an extended period can be harmful, especially for your heart.
What is the impact of stress on my heart?
Too much cortisol from chronic stress impacts common risk factors for cardiovascular disease. For example, cortisol increases your:
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar
- Triglycerides, a type of blood fat
Stress affects your heart health in other ways, too. It promotes the buildup of a waxy substance called plaque in your arteries. Plaque buildup, called atherosclerosis, decreases blood flow to the heart.
Cortisol also makes your blood “sticky.” When stressed, your body makes your blood clot faster. That’s good if you’re injured. Over the long term, however, it’s harder for your heart to pump “sticky blood.” Plus, clotting puts you at increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Stress also leads to choices that are bad for your heart, such as:
- Avoiding exercise
- Drinking too much
How can I manage stress?
Stress management is key to better health, including lowering your risk for heart disease. While it may be difficult at first, learning to control your mental and physical reactions to stressful situations has long-term health benefits.
Here are some ways you can manage stress.
Exercise regularly. Exercise releases mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins. Along with combatting stress, exercise helps lower your blood pressure, strengthens your heart muscle and helps you maintain a healthy weight.
Relaxation techniques. Managing stress looks different for everyone. Find what works for you. Bubble baths, time with friends, soothing music, gardening, reading and other techniques may be good stress relief options for you.
Mindfulness. Maintaining a positive attitude, letting go and expressing gratitude can be hard on a stressful day. But carving out time for mindfulness can help you shift perspective, be present and relax.
Seek professional help. Mental health and the health of our bodies is connected. It is ok to admit you are overwhelmed and need help. A mental health professional can work with you to find the care you need.
Unplug. Take time every day to disconnect, even if only for a few minutes. Avoid “doomscrolling” and checking notifications on your phone at night.
Sleep. Getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep for adults will help you feel recharged and focused.
Find a hobby. Hobbies can distract you from racing thoughts and worries.
Find care at Catholic Health
Your journey to good health starts with your primary care physician (PCP).
Call 866-MY-LI-DOC (866-695-4362) to find a PCP near you.
Your PCP can recommend you to a cardiologist if further evaluation is needed. At Catholic Health's St. Francis Heart Center, Long Island’s most awarded heart program, we offer the highest level of cardiac care led by a team of nationally recognized cardiologists.