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Heart Disease and Stress

Heart Disease and StressThe heart and blood vessels comprise the two elements of the cardiovascular system that work together in providing nourishment and oxygen to the organs of the body. The activity of these two elements is also coordinated in the body's response to stress. Stress can be categorized into acute or chronic.

  • Acute stress: Acute stress is momentary or lasting a short period of time. Some examples include meeting deadlines, being stuck in traffic or suddenly slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident. All of these cause an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle. In addition, the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart dilate, thereby increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and elevating blood pressure. This is also known as the fight or flight response. Once the acute stress episode has passed, the body returns to its normal state.
  • Chronic stress: Chronic stress is constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time. This can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.

Your body’s response to stress is supposed to protect you. But, if it's constant, it can harm you. Studies suggest that long-term stress can increase your blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure. These are common risk factors for heart disease. This stress can also cause changes that promote the buildup of plaque (atherosclerosis) in the arteries. Even minor stress can trigger heart problems like poor blood flow to the heart muscle. This is a condition in which the heart doesn't get enough blood or oxygen. And, long-term stress can affect how the blood clots. This makes the blood stickier and increases the risk of stroke.

Causes of Stress

Stress can be caused by a physical or emotional change, or a change in your environment that requires you to adjust or respond. Things that make you feel stressed are called "stressors." Stressors can be minor hassles, major lifestyle changes, or a combination of both. Below are some common stressors that can affect people at all stages of life.

  • Illness, either personal or of a family member or friend
  • Death of a friend or loved one
  • Problems in a personal relationship
  • Work overload
  • Starting a new job
  • Unemployment
  • Retirement
  • Crowds
  • Relocation
  • Legal problems
  • Financial concerns
  • Perfectionism

Coping with Stress

After you've identified the cause of stress in your life, the next step is to learn techniques that can help you cope with stress while fighting heart disease. There are many techniques you can use to manage stress. Some of which you can learn yourself, while other techniques may require the guidance of a trained therapist. Some common techniques for coping with stress include:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet
  • Assert yourself: You do not have to meet others' expectations or demands.
  • Stop smoking
  • Exercise regularly
  • Be careful with your alcohol consumption
  • Take responsibility: Control what you can and leave behind what you cannot control.
  • Reduce causes of stress: Many people find life is filled with too many demands and too little time.
  • Set realistic goals and expectations
  • Get enough rest: The time you spend resting should be long enough to relax your mind as well as your body.

To learn more about stress-related programs offered at RWJBarnabas Health, please talk to your doctor.

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