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Stress and Heart Health

By Marijke Vroomen-Durning, RN | Medically reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD for www.everydayhealth.com

Constant stress can elevate cardiovascular disease risk. Learn how you can reduce stress levels and risks to your heart health.

Stress, anxiety, frustration, anger — however you name it, these emotions can play an important role in your heart health. As your stress levels rise, so does your cardiovascular disease risk. So what can you do? If you can’t eliminate the stress in your life (and who can?), you need to find better ways to cope with it.

“Stress reduction is the cornerstone of a heart-healthy life,” says Jennifer H. Mieres, MD, FACC, FAHA, a cardiologist at New York University in New York City, a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women Movement, and co-author of Heart Smart for Black Women and Latinas (St Martin’s Press). “Learning to manage your reactions to stress may help make other lifestyle changes easier for you.”
What Stress Does to the Heart and Body

Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is what causes a “fight or flight” response. This results in high blood pressure, a faster heart rate, and slowing down of digestion. It can also contribute to weight gain, complicate existing illnesses such as diabetes, and lead to anxiety and depression. These physical reactions all increase your cardiovascular disease risk.

Types of Stress

There are two types of stress: acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is something that comes on suddenly but doesn’t last long, such as being chased by a bear. This kind of stress kicks you into gear so you can get out of the situation.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is stress that is with you for much longer, such as stress from marital problems, job conflicts, and family issues.

Managing Stress for Heart Health

The most obvious way to deal with stress is to avoid situations that cause the stress in the first place. It may seem simplistic, but sometimes that’s what you need to do — stay away from situations that you know affect you in a negative, stressful way.

If you can’t avoid stress, here are some approaches that may help you minimize the effects:

Find a hobby.
Take a walk, listen to music, or read a book.
Eat a healthy diet.
Talk to friends, family, and others who are supportive.
Breathe slowly and deeply to help stop the flight-or-fight stress response.
Escape mentally by creating a calm peaceful image in your mind.
Avoid smoking, drinking alcohol, and taking recreational drugs.
Talk to your doctor about ways to manage stress.
But what if the stress is in your face and you feel the flight-or-fight response kicking in right now? Here are some tips to deal with stress as it is happening:

Take time out. Walk away if you have to, in order to take a few minutes to regroup.
Distract yourself. Sometimes the simple act of enjoying a beautiful scene, watching children play in a park, or smelling a flower can help you put things in perspective and lighten your mood.
Count to 10. Sounds basic, but counting gives you a chance to rethink the situation.

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