There may be an even greater risk to your heart’s health than high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, obesity and physical inactivity. Chronic psychological stress may be more dangerous to heart health than each of these traditional cardiac risk factors.
A recent study, published in JAMA, found that mental stress took a significantly greater toll on the hearts and lives of heart patients than did physical stress. The patients were more likely to suffer a non-fatal heart attack or die of cardiovascular disease in the years that followed.
A previous study of patients from 52 countries found that those who experienced a high level of psychological stress during the year before they entered the study were more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack during an average follow-up of five years, even when traditional risk factors were taken into account.
The study, known as Interheart, showed that psychological stress is an independent risk factor for heart attacks, similar in heart-damaging effects to the more commonly measured cardiovascular risks.
Stress is a profound, yet underrated, factor in the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Stress, itself, exacerbates cholesterol levels, raises blood pressure and heart rate, and often creates the kind of pressure that prevents a person from engaging in adequate self-care activities.
Science has shown that an unrelenting barrage of stress hormones can break down the body, leading to obesity, disease, depression and more. Stress hormones have a profound effect on the brain. They actually change the brain, alter behavior and impact mental health. There’s growing evidence indicating that depressive illness and hostility are both associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD) and other systemic disorders.
Ultimately, stress affects us in every way — body, mind, emotions and behavior. Here’s how:
Stress can negatively affect the immune system, skin, hormones, bones, brain, heart, gut and muscles.
The effects of stress in the body can manifest in many ways: headaches, frequent infections, tight muscles, muscle twitches, fatigue, skin irritations and poor breathing, for example.
Stress can also affect our minds in the form of: worrying, impaired judgement, nightmares, indecision, negativity and hasty decisions, for example.
Stress affect our emotions in the the following ways: loss of confidence, irritability, depression, apathy, alienation and apprehension, for example.
Stress can also affect our behavior in the following ways: insomnia, restlessness, drinking more, smoking more, loss of appetite and loss of sex drive, for example.
Stress affects our nervous system and raises cortisol levels, which can affect metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate and the immune system. Continually high cortisol levels result in weight gain, digestive problems, heart disease and a suppressed immune system.
The immune system is designed to ward off these problems. However, the stress hormone cortisol is known to interfere with immune functioning. So, it’s important to find healthy ways to mitigate and manage your stress.
It should be noted that not all stress is bad, however. Good stress allows us to respond to an immediate challenge with a burst of energy that focuses the mind. And transient stress is a response to daily frustrations that resolve quickly. The problem is chronic stress, which results from a toxic, unrelenting barrage of challenges that eventually breaks down the body.
What can you do to mitigate the effects of chronic stress and/or anxiety?
Regular physical exercise can help to tamp down stress and the body-wide inflammation it can cause. Research shows that exercise lowers anxiety levels, and it does it rather quickly — in about 10 minutes. Exercise is a great way to bring wellness to your brain. A single workout increases neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, and these mood boosters can also improve your memory and focus for up to three hours afterwards. So, exercise helps your mental health, as well as your cognition.
A healthy, balanced diet can also help to relieve stress. What you put into your body affects you, for better or worse, in myriad ways. Sugar and processed foods can lead to inflammation throughout the body and brain, which may contribute to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. Yet, when we’re feeling stressed or depressed, it’s often processed foods that we reach for as a means of coping. This just creates a feedback loop.
Adequate nightly sleep is also a stress reliever. On the other hand, poor sleep increases stress and promotes arterial inflammation. For this reason, developing good sleep habits can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular damage. Adopt a consistent pattern of bedtime and awakening, and avoid exposure at bedtime to screens that emit blue light, like smartphones and computers, or use blue-light filters for such devices.
Maintaining a healthy social support network is also a critical means of stress management. Loneliness and isolation have been scientifically proven to be really bad for our health.
Relaxation techniques, such as meditation, can result in a rebalancing of your hormone levels, including: increased serotonin (happiness hormone), increased endorphins (pain relief hormone), increased melatonin (sleep hormone), decreased adrenaline (action hormone), and deceased norepinephrine (fight or fight hormone), as well as the enhancement of your immune system. Simply put, meditation helps people reduce stress and build resilience.
Controlled breathing has also been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness, and boost your immune system. Yogis have for ages long used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality.
Studies have found that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.
Consciously slowing your breath can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which can slow heart rate and promote feelings of calm and relaxation.
A 2011 review article in Health Science Journal identified some of the potential health benefits of deep breathing techniques, particularly for deep breathing from the diaphragm. These include:
• Reduced anxiety
• Better stress management
• Reduced hypertension
• Decreased fatigue
• Improved migraine symptoms
• Reduced aggressive behavior in adolescent males
• Reduced symptoms of asthma in children and adolescents
Ultimately, techniques such as meditation and controlled breathing activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the brain and body. These techniques can help you become calmer, while relieving anxiety and stress, which can lead to healthier physical, mental and emotional outcomes.
We will never eliminate all stress from our lives, but we can seek to reduce it, better tolerate it, and recover from it. Whatever you do, find ways to lessen and manage your stress. It can have a significant impact on your health.
Although stress is a part of life, doing the following things can help you manage your stress:
• Recognize your stress
• Take time for yourself
• Practice deep breathing
• Put Joy and laughter into your life
• Eat healthy, nutritious foods
• Avoid putting anything unhealthy in your body
• Have good sleep habits