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Heart Disease Prevention: How Stress Creates an Environment for Heart Attacks

How stress affects the heart

Experts still aren’t exactly sure how stress contributes to heart disease, but there’s no question that it can. There is evidence that stress affects some health factors and lifestyle choices that increase your risk for heart disease. For example, stress is linked to increases in blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a known risk for developing heart disease. Stress can also affect cholesterol levels and can push people into unhealthy habits, such as smoking, overeating, and forgoing exercise. Stress doesn’t actually cause people to choose these habits, but because some people find relief from stress by smoking, eating, drinking excessive alcohol, and lounging, stress can contribute to them.

When people experience stressful situations, their bodies tend to react by releasing adrenaline, which temporarily increases the heart rate and raises blood pressure. This isn’t a harmful response when it happens once in a while. In fact, this stress reaction was meant to protect you from harm. However, when stress continues over a long period of time and the body responds continuously, it can have harmful effects. And ultimately, it can raise your risk of heart disease and heart attacks.

There is actually a heart condition called broken heart syndrome. It is a heart attack that occurs after an especially traumatic event, such as the death of a child. There have been cases of people who received difficult news and immediately suffered a verifiable heart attack in which a coronary artery that had been open was suddenly closed.

Stress management for heart health

Managing stress is vital to your health. Stress can cause emotional turmoil and it can harm you physically as well. But there are ways to get a handle on your response to stress, which can help you avoid heart disease or keep it from getting worse. Here are some tips to help you manage stress.

  • ExerciseExercising is good for your heart, and it’s a great way to reduce stress. If you enjoy the exercise, it’s even better. Exercise releases endorphins, which are the body’s feel good chemicals. These chemicals also help combat the stress. And the more benefits you feel from exercise, the more likely you will be to keep moving. So pick exercises you like, and do something active every day. Just be sure to check with your doctor to make sure your exercise plan is safe for you.
  • Eat a healthy diet – There are lots of reasons to eat a healthy diet, and helping reduce stress is one of them. When your body and mind our well nourished, they function better. And when they function better, you feel better. Having optimal physical health can contribute to improved emotional health. And improved emotional health can help you handle stress more effectively, thus lowering your risk for heart disease.
  • Avoid smoking and drinking excessive alcohol – Smoking and drinking too much alcohol are both dangerous to your heart and overall health. Smoking and drinking in response to stress is common, but it’s an unhealthy way to handle stress, and it can cause more stress, making it a vicious cycle. If you smoke or drink more than a one or two alcoholic beverages per day, talk to your doctor about ways to quit smoking or reduce your alcohol consumption.
  • Stay positive – Did you know laughter is good for your heart? It can lower stress hormones, reduce inflammation, and increase your HDL (the good cholesterol). Having a positive outlook on life really does make a difference. There are studies that show people who see the glass full, so to speak, are healthier overall. And people who have heart disease are less likely to die if they think more positively.
  • Limit the screen time – Spending a lot of time watching TV or looking at a computer, phone, or tablet screen can add to your stress. Take time for yourself without a screen, even if it’s just for 15 to 30 minutes per day, and do something else you enjoy.
  • Try meditation, yoga, pryaing, or relaxation exercises – Meditation has been shown to reduce blood pressure and other risks for heart disease. Participating in yoga, praying, and practicing deep breathing can have similar effects, relaxing the mind and the body. These things can help you manage stress more effectively and lower your risk for heart disease.
  • Do something healthy that makes you feel good – We’re all so busy that it’s easy to keep going without taking time for yourself. It’s important to your physical and mental health to take care of yourself too. Carve out a little time every day to do something that helps you relax and feel good. Maybe that’s doing something creative like painting, knitting, writing, or woodworking; maybe it’s hitting some balls at the golf course or swimming a few laps; maybe it’s going for a hike in the woods; maybe it’s reading, listening to music, or playing an instrument. Whatever it is, do something healthy that makes you feel good. You’ll be surprised at how this can contribute to a positive outlook and help you cope with stress.

The difference between good vs. bad stress

You may have heard people talk about good stress versus bad stress. Good stress is any type of stress that is beneficial to your body or your mind. Good stress may include challenging exercises, work projects that offer a positive challenge, events in your life that bring on changes, like getting a promotion, getting married, traveling, facing your fears, anything that may change your life for the better.

The technical name for good stress is eustress. It comes from the Greek prefix “eu,” which translates to “good.” Eustress does kick start the fight or flight response that “bad” stress does, but it serves to refresh the system, not weaken it. There have been studies that show that mild eustress can actually enhance cognitive function in the brain. Eustress should leave us feeling good, motivated, challenged, and ready to take on life. The types of events that bring on eustress varies from person to person, so you might find traveling invigorating, and your best friend may find it exhausting. To you, travel would bring on eustress, while to your friend, it might be a bad stressor.

So what is bad stress? Bad stress, or distress, is the type of stress most people are referring to when they say they’re stressed out. It’s the type of stress that can get in the way of your everyday functioning and make you feel exhausted, frazzled, anxious, or unmotivated. As we’ve already mentioned, bad stress can take a real toll on your physical health.

How to cope with stress – healthy vs. unhealthy

There are many ways people cope with the stressors in their life. Some people use unhealthy tactics to handle stress. They may try to ignore the stress, withdraw, sleep, give into addiction, overeat, smoke, or drink too much. Others find healthier ways to manage stress. Here are some tips for learning to manage your stress in a healthy way, which in turn can help protect your heart and the rest of your body from the effects of stress.

  • Listen to your body, know your triggers, and understand how you react to stress – Your body will tell you when it’s starting to feel the effects of stress. Once you know how you react to stress, you can take steps to get on top of those natural reactions and change the way you think about stressful situations.
  • Find healthy ways to manage your stress – It’s easier and oftentimes comforting to turn to unhealthy habits to manage stress. Eating a bag of chips while watching TV may feel great, but it’s not a good way to handle stress. Come up with a plan for how you’ll deal with stress in a healthy way so you’ll be ready when you experience stressful situations. Call a friend, listen to music you enjoy, write, go for a walk to clear your head…these are all healthy ways to manage stress rather than letting it control you.
  • Learn how to say no – Many of us fall into the trap of trying to be everything to everyone. If you have trouble finding time to do things that are important to you and your health, try to find things you can cut from your schedule. Then replace those things with something to help you feel good. Feeling in control can go a long way toward managing stress in a healthy way.
  • Take care of your physical, mental, and emotional health – Taking care of yourself is so important. It’s easy to neglect your health when you’re busy and overloaded, but it’s a recipe for health problems down the road. Exercise and eat right to protect your body, and do things to help your mental and emotional health too. Talk to a therapist, join a support group, or just give yourself permission to do things you need to do to be the best version of yourself. Asking for help is a sign of strength. Don’t be ashamed to seek help when you need it.