Take control of your stress and protect your heart
This article was updated on August 2, 2022 to reflect recent information.
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Stress can lead to chronic high blood pressure, one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease.
Studies indicate that people who show signs of stress on brain scans were more likely to have a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack.
Luckily, there are easy ways for you to ease stress and protect your heart health.
Stress is part of life. The glib quote from Benjamin Franklin, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes” should be amended to include stress. While you may not be able to completely avoid stress, there are ways to help manage it. That’s particularly important because stress doesn’t just make you feel bad – it’s also bad for your body. Especially your heart health.
So, if you feel like the stress is starting to pile on more than usual, it’s time to stop and figure out some ways to relax and recharge.
How stress affects your heart
Feeling some stress now and then isn’t likely to affect your heart health. But long-term stress can take a toll.
When you feel stressed, your blood pressure increases — it’s a natural response to a stressful situation. While a short period of high blood pressure is okay, having chronic high blood pressure is one of the main risk factors for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
High blood pressure can strain and damage arteries, which ultimately affects how blood flows to your heart and brain. The more you can do to curb your stress, the better off your heart will be.
Mental health, stress, and heart health
A 2017 study published in The Lancet said that people who showed signs of stress on brain scans were more likely to have a cardiovascular event like a heart attack. Research continues to underscore this connection. The stress response on the brain scan was also associated with increased inflammation in the arteries, raising the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Stress, anxiety, or depression can also lead to unhealthy heart responses like palpitations or inflammation.
Poor mental health — whether it’s stress, anxiety, or depression — can also lead to unhealthy heart responses like palpitations or inflammation. Over time, these responses can damage the heart and how it functions.
We’ve all been there before: After a stressful day, all you want to do is dive into a piece of cake, a cocktail, or some other type of comfort food. And when you’re stressed, exercise is often the last thing you think you have time for.
It’s not surprising, then, that stress prompts unhealthy behaviors, such as:
- Alcohol use
- Lack of physical activity
- Overeating or an unhealthy diet
- Substance use
While the stress itself can create physical problems for the heart, unhealthy stress relief activities can worsen the situation. It’s crucial to find healthy ways to respond and curb your stress.
Signs of stress
Everyone has different responses to stress. You may feel some physical side effects while someone else can have a more mental or emotional reaction.
Some common signs of stress include:
- Back pain
- Stomach pain
- Poor sleep
If you notice these symptoms more often, it’s time to decompress and find a way to release some of that stress. Your heart will thank you for it.
Ways to reduce stress and help your heart
When you’re stressed, you may feel like you don’t have time to take a break. But taking time to relieve stress doesn’t mean you have to set aside hours of downtime. Start by adding a few minutes for yourself each day until you’ve worked out a stress relief routine.
Here are a few ideas to release that high-pressure stress valve, so you can keep your heart healthy. In addition, be sure to ask your primary care provider for resources that can help improve your mental health.
Music and meditation
Studies show that music and meditation can lower stress and reduce your cortisol levels, ultimately improving your heart health. Cortisol is a hormone that your body produces when you’re stressed and overwhelmed. It elevates your heart rate and blood pressure as part of your flight-or-fight response.
Daily meditation can reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that daily meditation can reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. Another study showed that heart attack patients can boost recovery and post-op stress by listening to 30 minutes of music a day.
Whether you prefer high-impact workouts or low-key stretching, exercise of any kind can relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. Even if you can only fit in 15 minutes a day, adding some exercise to your routine can improve your physical and mental health.
Yoga, which combines meditation, breathing exercises, and gentle stretching, has been shown to boost heart health. It improves circulation while reducing cortisol levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammation.
Aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping can also reduce cortisol and adrenaline, making you feel more relaxed. And have you ever heard of a “runner’s high”? That positive feeling comes from your body producing endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that help improve your mood.
Just be sure to consult with your doctor before making any modifications to your diet or exercise routine.
Several studies have shown that random acts of kindness can lower stress, ease pain, boost energy and reduce risk factors for heart disease. Like exercise, being kind releases hormones and chemicals in your body that lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, boost energy, and improve your mood. All these side effects can contribute to a healthier heart.
Random acts of kindness can lower stress, ease pain, boost energy and reduce risk factors for heart disease.
Try following these tips for getting a better night’s sleep:
- Avoid working or watching TV in your bedroom.
- Create a serene sleeping space that’s dark, quiet and at a comfortable temperature.
- Stick to the same sleep schedule every night.
- Avoid eating or drinking within a couple of hours before bedtime.
- Keep your cell phone out of the bedroom and avoid screens a few hours before bedtime.
Have a laugh
Laughter is a great way to reduce stress and boost cardiovascular health. Try setting aside time every day to read something funny, play with your kids or engage in a fun activity. More laughter in your life can:
- Stimulate circulation and help you relax your muscles, which means your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood through the body.
- Release nitric oxide, a chemical compound that can reduce artery inflammation and prevent plaque from forming in your arteries.
- Boost “good” cholesterol levels (HDL cholesterol), which can push “bad” (LDL) cholesterol out of your arteries and prevent plaque buildup or blockages.
- Improve blood vessel function by expanding the tissue that forms the inner lining of your blood vessels (endothelium). This helps prevent the hardening of blood vessels and arteries.
Find a new hobby
Engaging in a hobby has been shown to reduce stress levels, which can ultimately help your heart. A study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine showed that adults who participated in leisure activities were 34% less stressed and 18% less sad while doing those activities. The participants also had lower heart rates and felt calm and happy.
Socialize with friends and family
We all have busy days, and sometimes we just want to veg out on our own. But here’s some great motivation to get out the door: Meeting up with friends is great for your heart health. Technology makes it easy to get together with loved ones far away, too. A video call, FaceTime or simple text is shown to boost your mood – and theirs.
Take advantage of these social opportunities and share stories, memories and laughter. These interactions and relationships can boost your mood, help you decompress and relieve stress.
What’s important is finding a safe way to relieve stress, whether it’s through exercise, meditation or enjoying time with family.
Stress can have huge effects on your entire body, your heart especially. So, what’s important is finding a safe way to relieve stress, whether it’s through exercise, meditation or enjoying time with family. And if you’re still struggling with stress relief, don’t hesitate to ask someone for help.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.