Heart Health, Well Being, and Learning What You Can Do to Lower Your Stress Level

Most of us are likely to experience stress in our everyday lives. Stress can be caused by any number of things such as lack of sleep, overworking, and illness. Stress may be manageable at times, but too much stress can have negative effects on your mental health and, in some cases, lead to severe physical health issues. But with the proper knowledge and understanding, you can develop techniques to help you navigate life’s stressors. 

What actually happens to the body under stress?

Stress is our body’s response to any demand placed one the body and mind. Distress is often what is now termed “stress”. It is the body’s way of reacting to any factors initiating feelings of frustration, nervousness, or upset. Stress is actually your body forming a defense against unwanted danger.

According to the American Heart Association, when your body begins to feel stressed, it sets off a chain of events. Your body releases adrenaline, which speeds up your breathing and heart rate and ultimately results in high blood pressure. This “fight or flight” response is how your body chooses to deal with a stressful situation. If you are dealing with long term stress, more severe problems may occur. 

There are two types of distress: 

Acute Stress: Acute stress is short term stress that can be triggered by common situations such as running late or having an argument, or it may be triggered by an intense situation like a near car accident or traumatic event. Acute minor stress is common and experienced by most people. Our body is designed to move into action whether it is minor or a dangerous or alarming situation.

Chronic Stress: Chronic stress is long term stress that can last for weeks or months. Some examples in life may create chronic stress are repetitive abuse, dissatisfaction with a job, family/relationship issues, and ill health for you or someone close to you. Chronic stress keeps your body in an “alert mode” at all times. This constant stage of alertness will begin to cause physical harm.

The more stress your body endures, the more your emergency stress system is alerted. This system is harder to shut off if your body is triggered consistently. Those with chronic stress can experience negative effects on all of their body’s systems including the immune, digestive, reproductive, and cardiovascular systems. 

How are heart disease and stress connected? 

Too much stress can result in high blood pressure and poor blood flow to the heart, which increases risk of heart attack or stroke. Stress hormones also put your body at higher risk for blood clots. 

According to The University of Rochester Medical Center, stress causes your body to release the cortisol hormone. Studies show that chronic stress can result in increased cortisol levels and may lead to elevated blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure. These increases can ultimately result in heart disease. 

Stress can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like smoking, drinking, or overeating.  These behaviors can lead to addiction and indirectly affect the heart. Data shows that heart disease can be caused by high blood pressure, obesity, and physical inactivity, which are all results of stress. 

Johns Hopkins Medicine provided data from two studies that show the negative effects of stress on heart health. One study involved women over the age of 18 who were going through two or more divorces. The study found that their risk of heart attack rose to a similar level to that of a smoker or someone with diabetes. They also provided research to show that people who are concerned about losing their job are 20 percent more likely to develop heart problems. 

What are 4 ways you can reduce stress? Why does it work? 

Stress is a normal part of life but lack of healthy coping methods is what may put your body in physical danger. It’s important to find a balance between work, family, and doing things that make you happy. 

Here are 3 simple ways to help you reduce stress:

EXERCISE: Find time for exercise, even if that involves leaving your desk for a short walk. It’s proven that exercise releases endorphins, or your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. The more exercise you get, the more endorphins you release, and the more stress you will alleviate.

DIET: Healthy foods not only build up your immune system, but they can also enhance your mood. Foods high in protein can help keep your glucose level steady, allowing for focus and energy.

SLEEP: Sleeping relaxes your body and sharpens your judgment and decision making. The less sleep you get, the more irritable you will feel the next day. Your body needs sleep and a good night’s rest can help your mood and enhance your productivity. 

RELAXATION TECHNIQUES: Learning about mindfulness, breathing for relaxation, gentle stretching, and other effective techniques can impact the ability and quality of sleep, energy level through the day, improve mindfulness of other choices such as nutrition and exercise.

If you or a loved one are concerned about your ability to cope with stress or your heart health, or would like to learn more about your risk factors, please make an appointment with your Sentara Primary Care physician.

Click here to watch for our on-demand Stress Management Webinar.