We all know stress can, at the very least, cause annoying symptoms such as an upset stomach, fast-beating heart and sweaty palms. When life’s challenges creep in through work, relationships, school, and more, stress will commonly manifest in these ways. However, it’s important to understand the larger impacts stress has on our body’s organs and systems, specifically, on our cardiovascular health. Excessive or chronic stress can lead to severe heart damage that can result in heart attack or stroke.
What can Chronic Stress do to the Body?
It’s worth noting that small amounts of manageable stress aren’t necessarily bad for us. Stress can help us meet deadlines, study harder for tests and “hike The Bowl” that’s been on our bucket list for years. We’ve all heard the term “fight or flight” – our body’s response to threats or dangerous situations. This is the body releasing the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, all of which help us overcome these situations. It’s when the body doesn’t return to a calm state, and the stress response becomes chronic or longer lasting, that we begin to do damage to our bodies.
How Does Stress Affect Heart Health?
Small doses of stress tend to increase your heart rate and blood pressure. In a normal situation – say sitting at the top of the cornice of Gowdy’s, – your heart will start to beat faster. Whether you huck it or ski it, once you get to the bottom safely, your heart rate goes back to normal. Chronic stress doesn’t allow for that normalization and can increase inflammation in the body, potentially causing damage to blood vessels and arteries, sustained high blood pressure, and lower HDL (good) cholesterol.
There are also indirect effects of stress on your heart. For example, stress can affect our sleep hygiene, disrupting the good quality rest that contributes to long-term heart health. When we’re stressed, we’re also less likely to do the basic things we need to keep our hearts healthy, like exercise regularly, eat a healthy, wholesome diet and keep an eye on our weight.
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How to Deal with Chronic Stress
In a recent article for Aspen Valley Hospital, Dr. Michelle Miscione, PhD, LCSW, outlines important tools for maintaining mental health noting, “It’s easier to show up with grace and gratitude for others when we feel good about how we are showing up for ourselves.” She encourages the following behaviors to help prioritize mental health:
- Sleep hygiene that prioritizes at least eight hours a night
- Minimizing sugar, and eating a well-rounded diet that includes plenty of veggies
- Drink plenty of water
- Exercising regularly, choosing one activity each day that feels satisfying emotionally and mentally
- Implementing a self-care strategy that is more cerebral such as journaling, meditating, mindfulness, or going for a walk with a friend or loved one
- Finding a creative outlet like drawing, playing an instrument, painting or ceramics
The Importance of Stress Management
In her article, Give Your Heart a Healthy Beat, Aspen Valley Hospital’s Jeanne Stough, MS, reminds us that our heart is a muscle. Like the other muscles in our body, we need to exercise it, take care of it and limit the amount of stress we impose on it. Stress management is elemental to long-term heart health, as well as our overall health and wellbeing. If you’re worried you might be suffering from chronic stress, talk with your primary care provider or mental health professional to learn more about the best stress management techniques for you.
Stress as a Motivator
Stress can be a powerful motivating factor to change behaviors. Instead of feeling powerless under the weight of chronic stress, use it as a reason to make a change. This can mean finding a new, less stressful job, getting out of an unhealthy relationship or working to change economic circumstances. Doing so will help ensure you – and your heart – are happier.
Still Feeling Stressed?
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with stress consider talking to someone, there are a host of private therapists valley-wide, as well as organizations like Mind Springs Health and the Aspen Hope Center as well as Mountain Family Health Center. When managing the stress of a pandemic, virtual counseling or telehealth physician visits are readily accessible resources to help care for you.