It’s hard not to get through the day without at least one stressful event. Unfortunately, many people live in an almost constant state of stress, which can have no small impact on their physical and mental health.
As heart health experts, the team here at Advanced Cardiology Specialists wants to focus on the effects that chronic stress can have on your cardiovascular health.
Put quite simply, stress can stress your heart out and here’s how.
Understanding your stress response
When you’re stressed, your body is, technically, in fight-or-flight mode, which is a complex response that allows you to avoid danger.
When there’s a threat, your brain signals your sympathetic nervous system, which jumps into action and starts the fight-or-flight cascade. First, your body releases stress hormones that initiate a number of changes in your body, including:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Diverted blood flow to your muscles
- Muscle tension
- Pupil dilation
- Small airways in the lungs expand
- More oxygen goes to your brain
- Glucose and fat are released into your blood for energy
Each of these physiological responses is designed to give you the tools you need to survive a potentially dangerous situation.
Once the threat clears, your parasympathetic nervous system takes over, slows, and eventually stops the stress response.
When you have chronic stress, your body can become stuck in a fight-or-flight response, which can wreak havoc on your health.
Chronic stress and your heart
Chronic stress can affect your cardiovascular health in several ways. First, increased heart rate and high blood pressure are some of the more immediate stress responses, and with chronic stress, your heart doesn’t have the chance to slow down and take a break.
As a result, stress is thought to lead to ongoing hypertension, which is one of the leading risk factors for heart disease. Nearly half the adults in the United States have hypertension, and there’s a good chance that chronic stress is helping to push these numbers so high.
Another reason why stress is bad for your heart is that chronic stress can lead to mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Studies show that these mental health issues can influence cardiovascular health. For example, one recent study found that, “Young adults who feel down or depressed are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease (CVD) and have poor heart health.”
Another way in which chronic stress can negatively impact your cardiovascular health is that the high levels of stress hormones in your blood can lead to system wide inflammation. This inflammation can contribute to blockages in your arteries and also impact your heart muscle.
There are many other ways in which chronic stress can impact your physical health, but we want to point out that it can also push you toward unhealthy behaviors. For example, stress eating, turning to alcohol or drugs, or smoking are all common responses to ongoing stress, and each of these behaviors is bad for your heart health.
If you’re living with constant stress, we urge you to find ways to relax to ease the pressure on your cardiovascular health. Meditation, exercise, hobbies, spending time with family and friends — these are all great stress relievers.
We can also help you come up with a great heart health plan, which will include managing stress. To get started, please contact our office in Mountain View, California, to set up your appointment.