Managing stress may be key to improving health and reducing risk of cardiovascular disease over a lifetime.
Stress has been linked to psychological and physical ailments, and, long-term, it’s worrisome for heart health.
“Chronic stress has been shown to be associated with increased cardiovascular events,” said Dr. Ernesto L. Schiffrin, physician-in-chief at Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. A 2017 study in The Lancet using images of part of the brain involved with fear and stress found links between stress and cardiovascular disease episodes. Along with brain activity, the research included bone marrow activity and artery inflammation.
“These findings illustrate mechanisms through which emotional stressors can lead to cardiovascular disease in human beings,” Schiffrin said.
Schiffrin described stress as “aggression against the body.” This could come from within – like a disease or ailment – or from a person’s environment. Stress often sets off a chain reaction in the body, which activates a “fight-or-flight” response. As a result, adrenaline and cortisol levels increase. Excess exposure to these hormones can affect just about every system in the body.
Acute stress is experienced for a short period of time. For example, it can be the kind of strain people feel when they are about to give a speech. Once the situation passes, the stress resolves itself. More prolonged, chronic stress, however, can come from multiple factors, such as on-going financial or family problems.
Work also is a common culprit of mental and emotional strain. In fact, about 2 in 3 employees say work is a significant source of stress, according to a recent report from the American Heart Association Center for Workplace Health Research & Evaluation. Job stress can stem from long hours, physical strain, high demands or job insecurity.
Over time, these effects may produce physical symptoms, such as headaches, an upset stomach, tense muscles, insomnia and low energy. Other serious health problems can result. For example, high blood pressure brought on by stress can increase risks for heart attack and stroke.
Stress may lead to choosing unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking, overeating, drinking too much alcohol and foregoing physical activity. However, there are simple fixes that can help lower stress and reverse associated symptoms.
Schiffrin suggested aiming for a life-work balance and setting priorities. He also advised to make time for relationships with friends and family.
Understanding the link between sleep and stress also is important. Stress can affect sleep, which can cause more stress. That’s why getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night is ideal, Schiffrin said.
“Better sleep hygiene is critical in management of stress and promotion of heart health,” he said. Some of his advice for getting better sleep includes keeping bedrooms cool, dark and quiet; not exercising close to bedtime; and avoiding eating or drinking in the hours before bedtime, especially alcohol and foods high in fat or sugar.
Mindful meditation, deep breathing and yoga may be beneficial in combatting stress as well.
Exercise is another way to ease stress and improve mood. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week (or a combination of the two). In addition, at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities per week are recommended. Regular exercise helps to lower blood pressure and combat other cardiovascular disease risk factors.
Exercise has been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When choosing an exercise routine, it’s more important for people to aim for consistency and start a plan they will stick with over time. Scheduling workouts in advance is one way to stay accountable.
“It’s easy to sleep until whenever, especially for people who work from home. But if you schedule at least a loose routine, that can be helpful,” said Jacob Barkley, professor of exercise science at Kent State University in Ohio. “Start with a 10- or 15-minute walk and go from there.”
Experts also say tackling mental-health problems and learning healthier ways to cope with negative feelings are essential. Schiffrin said attempting to see a “silver lining” in any situation and having a positive attitude are important to reduce stress.
“Adopting some degree of serenity in the face of life’s challenges,” he said, “may help improve the perception of stress and result in better quality of life and better cardiovascular health.”