Stress is a normal part of life. Stress can come from physical causes, such as not getting enough sleep or having an illness. It can come from mental causes, such as not having enough money or death of a loved one, or less dramatic causes, such as everyday obligations and pressures that make you feel that you are not in control.
Your body’s response to stress was designed to protect you, but if it is constantly activated it can harm you. Studies suggest that the high levels of cortisol from chronic stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. These are traditional risk factors for heart disease.
"Chronic stress can cause physiological changes that promote atherosclerosis, the slow buildup of plaque deposits in the heart's arteries," says James A. Blumenthal, Ph.D., a psychologist in Durham, N.C., who specializes in the psychosocial factors of heart disease.
Relatively minor stresses also can trigger heart problems, such as myocardial ischemia. This is a condition in which the heart doesn't get enough blood. Chronic stress can also affect how the blood clots. It can make the blood stickier and increase your risk for stroke.
Moreover, "people who experience chronic stress may tend to smoke more and be more sedentary," says Dr. Blumenthal.
People respond to stressful situations differently. Some react strongly to a situation. Others are relaxed and unconcerned. Fortunately, you can decrease the effect of stress on your body. First, identify situations that cause you stress. Then learn to control your mental and physical reactions to these stressful situations. Adopt lifestyle habits that make you less vulnerable to the effects stress has on your heart.
Dr. Blumenthal offers these suggestions for managing stress and keeping your heart healthy.
Dr. Blumenthal says that exercise can help counteract the harmful effects of chronic stress. For heart health, aim for at least 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity, such as brisk walking, every day or most days of the week.
"The amount of exercise certainly affects cardiovascular health, but it also can be an aid to weight control and improving lipids [blood fats], as well as blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease," Dr. Blumenthal says.
Exercise has another stress benefit. "People who exercise have a reduced physical response to stress. Their blood pressure and heart rates don't go up as high as people under stress who don't exercise," he says.
Their heart rate also returns to normal more quickly than the heart rate of someone who doesn't exercise. Regular exercise also can reduce the risk of depression, another risk factor for heart disease.
Need exercise motivation? Get a pedometer and try to log in 11,000 to 12,000 steps per day. This goal also will help you maintain your weight. With a pedometer, you get instant feedback and credit for all you do, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
Research suggests that having a strong social support network—such as being married, having someone you can talk to and trust, or belonging to one or more organizations or a religion—can reduce your stress level and, thus, your risk of heart disease.
If you already have heart disease, this same network can help reduce your risk for heart attack. This means having someone to help you with daily activities, such as grocery shopping, cooking, or running errands. Having at least one person you can rely on takes a heavy burden off you and provides comfort.
A strong support system helps you take better care of yourself, too. "A lack of social support influences the extent to which people engage in high-risk behaviors, such as smoking, eating a high-fat diet, and consuming too much alcohol," says Dr. Blumenthal.
"Both these stresses can increase your risk of heart disease, or dying from the disease if you already have it," says Dr. Blumenthal.
In one study, people were asked whether they had felt so sad, discouraged, or hopeless during the past month that they had wondered if anything was worthwhile. Those who answered yes had more than double the risk for coronary artery disease.
Other studies suggest that chronic anxiety can increase the risk for sudden cardiac death. To reduce your anxiety level, try stress-reduction techniques such as yoga, walking meditation, traditional meditation, or guided imagery. Experiment until you find one that works for you. If none of these techniques works, ask your doctor about taking medication for anxiety.
Studies show having a demanding job that offers you few opportunities to make decisions or provides little reward can increase your risk for heart disease.
"The risk from job strain gets compounded when you experience a cluster of stresses, such as not having a strong support system or feeling chronically anxious," says Dr. Blumenthal.
If you can't find a different position within your company, do what you can to gain control over your environment. To prevent work-related burnout, set aside 10 minutes of down time each day.
"You can't just stay on 'go' all the time," says Dr. Blumenthal. "The body and the mind need time to rejuvenate."
© 2014 Main Line Health