Sometimes stress can be useful. But constant stress, which millions of Americans are experiencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, can affect overall well-being and may even impact heart health.
When stress is short-lived, it can help with performance in meeting a major deadline, interviewing for a new job or achieving another goal. Stress and its impact on the body can also be lifesaving in the face of danger.
But long-term stress, such as that spawned by the pandemic, through social isolation, economic dislocation and the demands of home-schooling, is another matter.
"Irritability, anxiety, depression, rumination and insomnia or waking up in the middle of the night with anguish" can result from chronic stress, said Dr. Ernesto L. Schiffrin, physician-in-chief at Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.
Ongoing stress not only takes an emotional and psychological toll, it can produce physical symptoms. Those may include headaches, an upset stomach, tense and aching muscles, insomnia and low energy.
Mental health can positively or negatively impact a person’s health and risk factors for heart disease and stroke, according to “Psychological Health, Well-Being, and the Mind-Heart-Body Connection,” a scientific statement recently published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation. Mental health is an important component to heart health, cardiovascular disease prevention and treatment, and overall well-being.
Negative psychological health conditions like chronic stress are associated with potentially harmful biological responses such as:
- irregularities of heart rate and rhythm
- increased digestive complaints
- increased blood pressure
- reduced blood flow to the heart.
Stress may lead to high blood pressure, which can pose a risk for heart attack and stroke. Stress also may contribute to such poor health behaviors that are lined to increased risk for heart disease and stroke, such as smoking, overeating and lack of physical activity, unhealthy diet, being overweight and not taking medications as prescribed, which may be exacerbated during the pandemic.
"Chronic stress has been shown to be associated with increased cardiovascular events," Schiffrin said. He pointed to a 2017 study in The Lancetthat used images of part of the brain involved with fear and stress and found links between stress and cardiovascular disease episodes. Brain activity was studied along with bone marrow activity and artery inflammation.
"These findings illustrate mechanisms through which emotional stressors can lead to cardiovascular disease in human beings," Schiffrin said.
Constant stress can impact creativity and productivity. For many people, the workplace is a source of stress.
Annual expenditures on work-related stress have been estimated at $190 billion, while the cost of poor mental health, including depression and anxiety, has been pegged at $211 billion annually. The estimates encompass lost productivity and work absenteeism.
Positive psychological health can play a part in better cardiovascular health and overall health. People with positive psychological health are more likely to have lower blood pressure, better glucose control, less inflammation and lower cholesterol.
Fortunately, there are lots of ways to manage stress, even with restrictions and life changes brought on by the coronavirus. Schiffrin offers these tips for minimizing constant stress:
- Make time for friends and family, even if it's remotely. It’s important to maintain social connections and talk with people you trust.
- Get regular exercise. Regular physical activity has been shown to relieve stress, tension, anxiety and depression. Consider meditation or yoga, as well.
- Get enough sleep enough. He recommends six to eight hours a night.
- Be positive. "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."
- Find a new hobby. A stimulating hobby is fun and can distract you from negative thoughts, fears or worries.