A car accident. A new job. A rebellious adolescent. Too many daily demands. All of these situations and so many more can cause stress.
Stress can be good. It is how your body responds to a threat or a challenge, and it can help you act in creative and resourceful ways. But stress also piles up, and too much can force the heart to work harder than it should. This puts you at risk of heart disease or a heart attack.
A heart under siege
Some stress is a reaction to unforeseen events and rushes at you. Your body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline that make you breathe faster, your muscles tense and your mind race. But other stress can be a constant presence, causing anxiety and making it hard to focus.
Stress can strain your heart by:
- Increasing your heart rate
- Raising your blood pressure
- Increasing inflammation in your body
- Increasing cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood
- Making your heart beat out of rhythm
The worst kind of stress
To compound these potential problems, when we are stressed, we’re also more likely to do things that are bad for our heart. Some people seek comfort in foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat. Others drink heavily or smoke.
Some kinds of stress are particularly harmful to your heart. These are on the list:
- Chronic stress: Daily stresses, such as family difficulties or financial problems, can put constant pressure on your heart.
- Helplessness: Stress caused by events out of your control can add another layer to stress.
- Loneliness: Stress can be more harmful if you are isolated and don’t have someone to talk with or a support system.
- Anger: People who explode in anger when they are stressed out have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Sudden stress: In rare cases sudden, or acute, stress can trigger heart attack symptoms. This is called broken heart syndrome. It is not the same thing as a heart attack, and most people recover fully.
What you can do
Women seem to be more susceptible to developing heart problems in the face of emotional stress. But for everyone, the crucial point is that stress makes the heart work harder to produce the blood needed for bodily functions. And an overworked heart is at risk of a heart attack.
You can protect yourself from some stress by avoiding situations that trigger it. But other stress is beyond our control. That means we need to learn how to manage stress. Here are some things we can do:
- Exercise daily.
- Eat a heart healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Do not smoke.
- Drink alcohol in moderation.
- Make room for quiet time, meditation, prayer, reading, yoga and other relaxation techniques.
- Ask family and friends for support. Try to resolve conflicts by talking about them.
- Take a stress management class.
Learning how to manage stress, relax and cope with problems can improve your emotional and physical health. Talk to your Providence primary care provider if you need help getting your stress under control.
Don’t have a primary care provider? Use our online tools to find a clinic or provider near you.