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Stress and Heart Health – How Are They Connected?

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Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, 23 per cent of people over the age of 15 report that most days are “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressful, and that number rises to 30 per cent among the 35 to 54 age group. High levels of stress cause lead to conditions such as high blood pressure, muscle tension, fatigue and sleep problems, just to name a few.

What is stress?

Everyone experiences stress to some degree. Stress can be triggered by both positive and negative life instances. But what is stress, exactly? Stress is, quite simply, the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. Certain stressors can be good for us, as it motivates us to focus on a particular task or solve a problem. But some stressors can have a negative impact on our emotional and physical well-being. Left untreated, stress can lead to many health issues, including heart health issues.

worried girl sitting on bench

What causes stress?

There are many reasons why we experience stress. When we feel threatened, our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which stimulates the body for emergency action. Our hearts beat faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase our strength and stamina, speed up our reaction time and enhance our focus—preparing us to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

How are stress and heart health connected?

stressed man on the phoneWhen your body experiences stress, it goes into “fight or flight mode” and your blood pressure begins to rise. This is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival. During episodes of extreme or chronic stress, our bodies can be so greatly affected that we can’t eat, sleep or think clearly. In certain cases, sudden and extreme stress brought on by trauma, for example, can lead to a person having heart attack. Chronic stress may cause some people to drink too much alcohol, which can increase blood pressure and may damage the artery walls. Doctors agree that managing stress is good for your overall health and can decrease your chances of having high blood pressure, a contributing factor to heart health issues.

Five tips to help manage your stress and help your heart

(Published by Harvard Health Publishing of Harvard Medical School)

  1. Stay positive. People with heart disease who maintain an upbeat attitude are less likely to die than those who are more negative, according to research. Just having a good laugh can help your heart. Laughter has been found to lower levels of stress hormones, reduce inflammation in the arteries, and increase “good” HDL cholesterol.
  2. Meditate. This practice of inward-focused thought and deep breathing has been shown to reduce heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure. Anyone can learn to meditate. Just take a few minutes to sit somewhere quiet, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Meditation’s close relatives, yoga and prayer, can also relax the mind and body.
  3. Exercise. Every time you are physically active, whether you take a walk or play tennis, your body releases mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins. Exercising not only melts away stress, but it also protects against heart disease by lowering your blood pressure, strengthening your heart muscle, and helping you maintain a healthy weight.
  4. Unplug. It’s impossible to escape stress when it follows you everywhere. Cut the cord. Avoid emails and TV news. Take time each day—even if it’s for just 10 or 15 minutes—to escape from the world.
  5. Find your own path to stress relief.Take a bubble bath, listen to music, or read a book. Any technique is effective if it works for you.

man meditating with sky backgroundManaging stress levels is key to maintaining good overall health. Chronic stress can lead to larger health issues, including heart health issues. Learning to identify symptoms of stress and simple techniques to deal with stress can be beneficial to your health and your heart!