How Stress Affects the Heart

How Stress Affects the Heart | Dr. Ali Ghahary

As many as 75% of adults between the ages of 20 and 64 report that they are living with some level of stress in their lives, therefore making it one of the biggest threats to our health and wellbeing. Stress can not only lead to further problems with mental health, such as depression and anxiety, but it can also have an impact on personal relationships as well as with productivity at work or in school. Research has also shown that excessive or chronic stress can be just as bad for your heart health as having an unhealthy diet and being physically inactive. For example, this research showed that there was an increase in activity in the brain’s fear and stress centre known as the amygdala. The same research also showed that individuals who had an increase in activity in their amygdala also had an increase in inflammation in their bone marrow and arteries, and were as much as 60% more likely to suffer a heart attack. When you’re stressed your body also releases a hormone known as adrenaline, which can cause both your heart rate to increase and blood pressure to rise to harmful levels.

So, while you should be eating healthy, getting regular exercise, and avoiding bad habits such as smoking and alcohol consumption in order to prevent heart disease, there are also other strategies you can try to keep stress at bay to further improve your heart health. In fact, exercise is actually also one of the best ways you can reduce stress. When you’re engaging in physical activity, your brain is releasing chemicals known as endorphins which help you feel calmer. Those same endorphins can also help you to get a better night’s sleep. Because exercise is a healthy habit that you should stick to, it’s important to find an activity you love. Examples include walking or jogging (putting together or joining a walking group can also make it more fun), joining a low-impact fitness class, or another form of fitness like swimming, yoga, cycling, or weight lifting. As long as you’re getting some kind of movement, your focus will shift to your body rather than the brain.

Another way to relieve stress is to find some time to yourself. With so many priorities in life, such as taking care of families or having to meet work deadlines, it’s easy to forget to put yourself first and have fun sometimes, but it’s important nevertheless – because the more time you’re taking for yourself, the less of a reaction you will have to stress. Putting yourself first can be something as simple as taking 10 minutes to yourself in the mornings before getting ready for work, finding a good book to read, listening to your favourite music, going on vacation, joining an afternoon or evening activity group at a local community centre, etc. It’s all about finding things you enjoy.

You also need to identify your stressors. There are many things that can trigger stress, but some of the most common include those related to work, i.e. being unhappy with your job, having a heavy workload, dealing with poor management, workplace discrimination or harassment; life stresses, i.e. the illness or death of a loved one, your own chronic illness or injury, divorce, financial problems/obligations, moving, or going through a traumatic experience. There are also other factors that can lead to stress which can further put your heart at risk, such as fear and uncertainty, the way in which you perceive the world or certain situations, having expectations that are considered unrealistic, or going through major change. For some, stress is something that can roll off a person’s back, while for others it can have a detrimental impact on their health, which is why it’s so important to combat it as early as possible. Sometimes the best way to relieve stress is to talk about it. While you may initially find discussing your triggers difficulty to talk about (if your stress is related to trauma, for example), you may also find opening up about your stressors to be therapeutic.