A little stress in life is natural and good. It may help you buckle down and focus on the task at hand. But modern life is more stressful than ever. So, many of us experience ongoing periods of stress with little relief. Although it’s hard to measure stress, and people react differently to it, there’s evidence that it can add up and emotionally drain us and physically affect our heart health.
Stress is a psychological and physical response by your body to anything that’s perceived as a threat or a challenge. It can be caused by anything that requires you to change or respond to your environment. The things that make you feel stressed are called stressors, which may be minor inconveniences (for example, traffic or time limitations) or life-changing events (for example, a serious illness). While we often think of stressors as negative changes, remember that stressors may be positive changes, such as a wedding, a new job or promotion, or a move. When you experience stress, your body acts like an alarm system. It makes hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) that give you extra energy. This helps you get through temporary periods of stress until you can relax again.
The stress response is often called the “fight or flight” response because your body is hardwired to give you quick energy to either fight off or run away from a threat. However, when the stress hormones are continually released because you’re “stressed out,” it’s thought that they harm your health in many ways. And when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to let your healthy lifestyle behaviors slip, which can harm your heart health.
Most people experience a combination of all types of stress in their lifetime. However, a stressor that causes one person to feel stressed may not bother another because we all react differently. Studies have revealed several major stressors that are associated with an increase in heart disease risk. They include the following:
- Job or financial strains
- Marital strain or divorce
- Social isolation, including the loss of a loved one and depression
- Personality traits such as type A “perfectionist” personality, anger and hostility, and anxiety
- A pessimistic outlook
Tips for Minimizing Stress
Although you can’t always control what happens to you, it’s possible to control how you react to stressors. Sometimes, people react to stress with anger, fear, anxiety, and irritability, which makes a bad situation worse. While it’s not easy, studies suggest that you also can help minimize stress by changing the way you deal with it, including the following:
- Maintaining a positive approach to life
- Setting realistic expectations of yourself and other people
- Identifying any unhealthy ways you might be coping and instead choosing healthier ways to relax and manage stress
The following links provide more information on stress management and your heart:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Stress and Coping
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) – Manage Stress
- The American Heart Association (AHA) – Stress and Heart Health
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – Manage Stress
- World Health Organization (WHO) – Doing What Matters in Times of Stress