It does not take a medical professional to know that stress has an impact on the human heart.
Every time a person experiences undue pressure at work or at home, they feel it in their chest (although they likely get a headache or stomach ache at the same time). Clutching your chest in times of stress is as natural as rubbing your eyes when you wake in the morning.
Stress and anxiety are two key factors in the development of Arteriosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease, especially coronary artery and cerebral vascular disease. Heart conditions related to stress and anxiety are more often indicated in women than in men, but heart disease remains one of the leading causes of death among all humans.
Here is a detailed explanation of what happens to your heart and your arteries when stress takes a hold of you.
The Clinical Details:
Our conversation here is not about occasional stress (locking yourself out of the house, dealing with a difficult traffic situation, etc.). Instead, our topic is chronic stress, those pressures that are a constant part of your life and you cannot alleviate the factors creating that stress.
Think of chronic stress as you sitting on your favorite couch in your favorite location. The pressure placed on the cushion eventually causes the cushion to lose its ability to support you properly. It simply does not provide the same comfort over time.
Chronic stress on the body leads to high blood pressure, which is a major factor in the development of ASCVD.
The lack of release, those situations where the pressure is constant, is more likely to create the conditions that lead to reduced performance of the vascular system. Spasm-like tightening of arteries, which reduces blood flow to heart muscle, but also creates extra strain on the heart as it pumps blood. That’s why when a patient is diagnosed with high blood pressure, one of the first questions that come from the physician is about the stressors in the patient’s life.
Under stress, the body releases the hormones cortisol and epinephrine. Research indicates that increased and constantly high levels of these hormones can increase blood cholesterol, blood sugar and triglycerides. These are all well-known risk factors for heart disease. These factors, along with hypertension, can lead to increased levels of plaque in the arteries, reducing blood flow, and putting extra pressure on the heart.
There is another role stress plays, a particularly dangerous one. Stress can lead to cerebrovascular dysfunction, in which inadequate blood flow to the brain can lead to poor cognitive function. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Poor cognitive performance can lead to an inability to psychologically handle the physical needs related to the source of the stress, thus creating more stress. Cerebrovascular dysfunction is often cited as a source of depression, which is understandable when the brain ceases to function the way we are accustomed to.
The Signs Of Undue Stress:
While much of the stress we experience in life is clear to us, sometimes we experience stress that we don’t recognize as worrisome or dangerous. But your body is trying to tell you that you are experiencing unpleasant levels of stress, and the signs you need to be reading include:
- An irregular heart beat (palpitations) – It sometimes feels as if your heart is experiencing a hiccup. But, if such occurrences are frequent, it is an indication that outside forces are engaging with the heart to produce inadequate or irregular performance.
- Digestive problems – Pick your poison here. Undue stress may reduce your interest in eating, or it may cause you to overeat. Either way, the change in your eating habits is going to impact your digestive performance. Since every body function that keeps you alive works in collaboration with other body functions, increased digestive problems are a good indication that stress is creating havoc with your eating habits and your circulatory system.
- Back and stomach pain – Undue stress does not only register in the heart. Signals can come from your lower back and, of course, your stomach. Another place where stress resides in the body is the shoulders. The pain there can affect your posture, which can lead to poor vascular performance, which again causes the heart to work overtime.
What Stress Can Make You Do:
Undue or constant stress can make you feel poorly. It can also cause you to act differently, which impacts your physical well-being.
- Smoking – The worst impact of stress is the desire to smoke. If you ever had a smoking habit, new and constant stress can make you think about getting back on that unfortunate track. If you are currently a smoker, stress can cause you to smoke more. The endorphin buzz that comes from smoking cigarettes can relieve some of the unpleasant emotional feelings you experience due to stress, but we all know what cigarette smoking does to the body, and it is not good.
- Poor diet – As mentioned above, stress can create different reactions in regard to diet. Some people eat their way through a tough situation, and others find it hard to create a decent meal for themselves. This reaction puts added stress on numerous internal procedures, all directly related to heart performance.
- Lack of activity – There is a great deal of research on how stress impacts the mind. One reaction is an inability to work up the energy for physical activity. All physicians will tell you that physical activity can be cathartic, but it can be difficult to activate the urge to jog or walk or play sports when all you can think about is those factors in your life causing you stress.
- Sleep habits – When stressed, you often have too much on your mind to sleep, or sleep well. This is a problem which feeds upon itself. When you don’t sleep well on Day One, getting a good night’s sleep is all you think about on Day Two, and that is just another stressor you don’t need.
What Can I Do About My Stress?
Next month, we will offer a few ideas regarding how to properly handle stress in order to improve cardiovascular performance and limit the harm stress can cause. But we will go beyond suggestions of meditation and yoga.
The key, however, is to recognize that stress is the cause of at least some of your physical and emotional problems, and the sooner you recognize that factor, the sooner you can address it.