Stress is a normal—and healthy—emotion. It’s not uncommon to feel a little stressed during high-pressure or unexpected events, like a traffic jam on the way home from work, a fight with a partner, or a job interview you’re preparing for. But when stress is a permanent part of your daily life, it could turn into an unhealthy habit.
Consistent exposure to stress is called chronic stress and, while the reasons for your stress may vary, your body’s response is the same.
“During stressful situations the body releases adrenaline, a hormone that causes your heart rate and breathing to speed up and your blood pressure to increase. It’s a fight-or-flight response to situations that you may not be comfortable in,” explains Bernard King, DO, family practice physician at the Main Line Health Center in Concordville.
And, when these stressful situations add up, they can begin to take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can manifest itself through several physical symptoms, including headaches, upset stomach and irritable bowel syndrome, muscle tension, and difficulty sleeping or poor sleep quality. It can also weaken your immune system, which makes it more difficult to fight off infection.
Chronic stress has also been said to affect heart health. While research has yet to uncover a direct link between chronic stress and heart health, the physical side effects of stress can have an impact on your heart disease risk.
“High blood pressure is one of the many risk factors for heart disease. When you experience chronic stress, these incidents of high blood pressure can begin to take their toll on your heart,” explains Jeanine Romanelli, MD, Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist at Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health.
Chronic stress can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like smoking, excess alcohol intake, or an unhealthy diet. Turning to these outlets for stress relief can also increase your risk for heart disease by contributing to other heart health risk factors, like diabetes, obesity, and the often-discussed broken heart syndrome.
Instead of turning to outlets like these to relieve your stress, opt for other techniques to battle stress.
“Relaxation techniques like meditation, deep breathing, or even taking the time to unplug and read a book or have coffee with a friend are healthier outlets for stress,” says Dr. King. “Exercise can also help reduce stress. Take a walk or sign up for a yoga class.”