Stress. We all experience it but we react to stress in different ways.

While some stress can be positive, like giving you the push you need during a job interview or protecting you from danger, chronic stress can negatively impact your overall health. Chronic stress takes an emotional and mental toll on your body but presents physical symptoms as well1.

Chronic stress can increase the likelihood of cardiovascular events including high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

Wondering why stress and heart health are closely related?

Good stress, bad stress, and chronic stress

First, we need to define exactly what stress is. Stress is the physical or mental response to an external cause2. Stress falls into three categories:

  • Good stress (Eustress). Eustress, known as “good stress,” is associated with motivation or positive life accomplishments. Examples of eustress include marriage, a promotion, a baby, winning money, new friends, and graduation3.
  • Bad stress (Distress). When talking about stress, this is the type of stress that people tend to think of most. Properly known as distress, this is the stress in daily life that has negative connotations including divorce, punishment, injury, negative feelings, financial problems, and work difficulties3.
  • Chronic stress. Chronic stress is the cost of daily living that includes bills, kids, and jobs. This is the stress people tend to push through on a regular basis, and without coping skills, it can soon turn into larger health issues3.

While the stress may be positive, all three types of stress feel the same in the moment due to our fight or flight response. When our bodies perceive a threat, our bodies release hormones and activate the sympathetic nervous system. In the face of any stress, your body is preparing to help you get through the situation or run. The fight or flight response is critical for keeping us safe, but when the fight or flight response is triggered too often, it can take a toll on health4.

Stress and heart health

Because of the fight or flight response, stress can take a toll on your heart health. When you’re experiencing a stressful situation, you may notice your heart racing. This happens because your body is coursing with adrenaline and blood pressure is increasing to help you handle the stressor5.

When you experience chronic stress, your body is facing stressors constantly, and therefore is in high gear off/on for days or weeks at a time. When that happens, you may experience high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke5.

The stress and heart health connection can also come into play based on how you handle stress. When stressed, it can be a challenge to follow a healthy lifestyle. After all, stress is exhausting. Because of that, some of the following poor coping skills can also lead to heart conditions5:

  • Smoking
  • Overeating/unhealthy diet
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Not taking medications as prescribed

Stress can even factor in your heart-related lab tests. Two studies shared by Medical News Today found6:

  • A positive correlation between those who experienced job stress and unhealthful cholesterol levels
  • Psychological stress led to higher levels of triglycerides and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) aka the “bad” cholesterol and decreasing levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) aka the “good” cholesterol

How to manage stress

Since we all react to stress differently, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to managing and reducing stress. However, there are some expert-recommended coping skills to try7:

  • Understand your triggers. Knowing what sets you off ahead of time, like being late for appointments, can help you make a plan so you’re ready to face stress when the time comes. Or make a plan to avoid stressors. In this case, if you worry about being late, you can make a plan to leave earlier than needed.
  • Practice relaxation. Deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation may help you in the moment of a stressful situation. Thanks to technology, there are meditation apps, breathing exercises and more you can do on the go.
  • Exercise daily. Having a fitness routine helps more than your physical health. When you exercise, endorphins are released which are stress-relieving hormones.
  • Get enough sleep. Things feel better and more manageable after a good night’s sleep.
  • Eat well. Similar to daily exercise, following a well-balanced diet helps more than just physical health. A diet including whole grains, vegetables and fresh fruit is the foundation for a healthy body and mind. Eating well can also help stabilize your mood.
  • Make time for yourself. Self-care is important for health. Simply setting aside time to do something that makes you happy can be great for health and stress levels.

Next steps with stress management

If you’re concerned that your stress levels are at an unhealthy level, there are options. First, talk to your healthcare provider who can order heart-related blood tests to see how everything is working internally. Additionally, finding a mental health professional can help you get to the root cause of your stress and work to make a stress management plan that fits with your stressors and lifestyle.

Sources

  1. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2020/02/04/chronic-stress-can-cause-heart-trouble
  2. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-fact-sheet
  3. https://www.stress.org/daily-life
  4. https://www.stress.org/how-the-fight-or-flight-response-works
  5. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/stress-and-heart-health
  6. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313207#stress_and_cholesterol
  7. https://nami.org/Your-Journey/Individuals-with-Mental-Illness/Taking-Care-of-Your-Body/Managing-Stress