Is there a connection between stress and heart disease? Medical science has long thought so, a conclusion that has been supported by a large number of studies over the years that have shown that people with high-stress lifestyles are more likely to suffer heart attacks and other forms of cardiovascular disease than the general population.
While exactly how stress contributes to heart disease has been difficult to pin down, over the past few years, researchers have begun to gain a better understanding of how chronic stress affects physical health – including cardiovascular health – highlighting the importance of effective stress management.
About Stress and Heart Disease
So just how does chronic stress affect cardiovascular health? Two recent studies provide some insight. In a study published in the March, 2014 edition of Nature Medicine, researchers found that exposure to chronic stress causes an increase in levels of inflammation-promoting white blood cells in the body, which, in turn, may lead to a progression in atherosclerosis – the buildup of plaque in arteries – as well as plaque rupture and myocardial infarction – or heart attack. Myocardial infarction can lead to immediate heart failure in severe cases, or may create damage that causes a gradual weakening of the heart muscle, as occurs in congestive heart failure.
In the second study on stress and heart disease, published in the June, 2014 edition of mBIO, researchers found that the release of a stress hormone called norepinephrine during moments of high stress can cause the dispersal of bacterial biofilms from artery walls. This, according to study authors, can allow plaque deposits to break free from those walls, triggering heart attack or stroke.
According to WebMD, stress has a number of other affects on the body that can impact cardiovascular health. High levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenalin, make a person more likely to experience high blood pressure, chest pain or irregular heart beat, and studies have linked high stress levels to changes in the way blood clots, which can make heart attack more likely. Additionally, many people who are exposed to high levels of chronic stress tend to handle it in unhealthy ways, such as smoking, overeating, drinking too much and foregoing exercise, habits that impact heart health.
Stress and Heart Disease: Effective Stress Management Can Help
So just what can be done to protect your heart and health against the affects of daily stress? Avoiding stress altogether, of course, is impossible. However, taking steps to reduce stress in your life is important, as is learning to manage the stress you can't avoid more effectively.
Great ways to manage stress include staying active, since regular exercise helps reduce your levels of stress hormones and increases production of brain chemicals that improve your mood. Meditation, yoga or tai chi can help too, as can scheduling a little time for yourself every day – even just 20 or 30 minutes to read, listen to music or soak and a hot bath. An active social life can help reduce your stress levels, so make time to get out and talk, laugh and have fun with friends and/or family at least once a week.
Lastly, if you're having trouble reducing your stress levels on your own, consider a stress management class. These programs teach a variety of stress management techniques, giving you the tools you need to keep stress under control. Given the potential hazards of chronic stress, these programs are a worthy investment, helping you learn how to minimize the toll stress can take on your cardiovascular system and your overall health.