Heart Disease and Stress: Don’t Underestimate the Impact

It’s impossible to remove all stress from your life, and even if you could, not all stress is necessarily bad. It can give you that extra bit of energy you need to finish a work project on time or speed up your reflexes to avoid a near collision on a bike trail.

It’s the ongoing, chronic stress that’s often a part of today’s nonstop society that we caution our patients to identify and avoid. This is especially true when you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease. Managing your stress won’t require you to spend your days in isolation on a distant mountaintop, but it takes effort on your part to restore balance to your life.

Understanding the Health Consequences of Stress

You may be familiar with the mood changes commonly linked to stress. Irritability, difficulty focusing, and anxiety are all part of that overwhelming feeling you may experience when anxiety about bills, a demanding boss, or unhealthy social relationships keeps you awake at night. When stress becomes part of your everyday life, it can lead to lack of motivation, sadness, and depression.

Many of our patients are surprised to learn that unmanaged stress can also affect their physical health. Beyond the headaches, stomach upset, and muscular tension that stressful situations may cause, stress can also result in:

These physiologic responses to stress increase your risk of developing serious medical conditions such as heart disease and can worsen the effects of these diseases on your health if you’ve already been diagnosed. Unrelenting stress may also lead to behavioral changes that contribute to your physical distress and poor heart health, such as decreased physical activity, smoking, overeating, or excessive alcohol use.

Understanding Your Body’s Response to Stress

Your body’s stress response is related to the flight-or-fight trigger that helps protect you from danger. When your mind perceives a threatening situation, your hypothalamus gland signals your body to produce stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These powerful substances increase your heart and respiratory rate and get your muscles ready for action.

Normally, once the threat recedes, the extra hormone production ceases and your body returns to a resting state. You may have noticed the powerful effects of this withdrawal after a near miss in traffic when you steered calmly through a dangerous situation but had to pull over afterward because your hands were trembling so badly you found it difficult to grip the steering wheel.

Your mind can also perceive tight deadlines, unpaid bills, and even traffic jams as situations that may threaten your health and well-being. Your hypothalamus doesn’t evaluate the level of a threat — for instance, differentiating between a bear standing in your path or an unpaid electric bill. It simply responds to your brain’s signal to continuously increase stress hormones, which can create serious medical concerns.

Managing Chronic Stress

As part of our whole-patient approach at Bethel Medical Associates, we focus on your lifestyle, physical health, and emotional well-being when it comes to helping you manage chronic stress.

When you’re experiencing symptoms related to stress, we conduct a physical examination and any tests necessary to rule out other underlying causes of your discomfort. We might recommend medications to help reduce your feelings of anxiety, but we also focus on ways you can control your response to stressful situations.

It’s important to remember that while your symptoms are certainly real, they begin with how your mind perceives certain situations. Changing your self-talk from negative to positive, practicing focused relaxation with yoga or similar methods, and taking time for activities you enjoy can all give you a new perspective on the life issues that cause you stress. Counseling also helps you identify the root of your stress and create ways to take charge of how you view your life.   

Other effective ways to combat stress include eating a nutritious diet, exercising on most days, and switching from caffeinated beverages to soothing herbal tea. Regardless of what’s causing your stress, we work with you to develop a successful treatment plan that decreases your body’s flight-or-fight response to life and improves your heart health in the process.

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