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Understanding the Effects of Stress on the Heart

August 28, 2019
Understanding the Effects of Stress on the Heart
Stress is a regular occurrence in everyday life. It can rise up as a result of an overloaded work schedule, concerns over bills or just a bad day’s commute. Not everyone reacts the same to stress, and there are significant differences between male and female responses. Yet many stress reactions can contribute to heart problems. As a result, learning some stress-management techniques can aid heart health.
How Stress Reactions Differ
Excessive stress isn’t just a mental issue. It also can contribute to a range of physical conditions, including high blood pressure, asthma, ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. It also can lead to behaviors that can contribute to heart disease, including overeating, drinking too much alcohol and cigarette smoking. Personal history can play a role in how we feel and react to stress. And there are some interesting gender differences, as well:
  • More women report experiencing extreme stress. And women are more likely to report physical and emotional symptoms from stress, including headaches and indigestion, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2012 Stress in America survey.
  • Men are more likely to adopt a fight or flight response that ignores perspectives of others, according to University of Vienna research. Women, however, often react by trying to better understand other perspectives in cases of stress-related conflict.
  • Men have a gene called SRY that releases stress hormones encouraging the fight or flight response in men. However, according to researchers with Australia’s Prince Henry’s Institute, women don’t have this gene. They secrete endorphins that motivate friendly behavior during stress.
How Stress Affects Heart Health
For both men and women, stress can cause arteries throughout the body to constrict, which reduces blood supply to the heart. In people with heart disease, this condition is called mental stress-induced ischemia. This can be especially damaging when feelings of stress are constant.
Other impacts of stress on heart health are less direct, and may be the result of how a person decides to handle stressful events:
  • Overeating. Stress can trigger people to eat, even when they’re not hungry. It also can lead them to turn to sugary, high-fat foods instead of more healthy choices. Too much of these foods can lead to higher cholesterol
  • Overdrinking. Alcohol can aid relaxation in the short term. In the long term, however, it can actually boost the production of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to even higher levels of stress. Overdrinking can lead to high blood pressure and cardiomyopathy, a condition that makes it harder for the heart to function.
  • Smoking cigarettes. Many smokers find the act of smoking calming, but it can lead to a number of negative consequences for your heart. These include increased blood pressure, increased heart rate and constricted blood vessels.
Bringing Stress Under Control
You can’t always control when stressful situations might arise, but you can control how you react to them. If you recognize stress is triggering your own unhealthy habits, it might be time to take a different approach. Healthy stress-management approaches include:
  • Recognizing what you can’t change. For example, getting frustrated at rush-hour traffic won’t make it better. But you can listen to a podcast or an audio book to take your mind off your commute.
  • Exercising. Physical activity releases endorphins that help us feel better. Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day — even with a lunch-hour walk — can help reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Getting enough sleep. With a regular 7-9 hours of sleep every night, you’ll think more clearly and be better able to handle stressful situations.