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Are You Stressed?

How to Identify Stress and Help Your Heart

While stress is not directly associated with heart disease, its impact on your overall health is undeniable. Stress not only affects your body directly, it can also lead to unhealthy habits and behaviors, many of which can increase your risk of heart disease.

Your body releases adrenaline and cortisol when you’re stressed. Adrenaline can raise your heart rate and blood pressure, which in turn can damage artery walls. Cortisol can increase coronary plaque accumulation, which can cause arterial blockages and lead to heart attacks. And while chronic stress does not directly cause high blood pressure, bad habits developed to cope with stress, such as comfort eating, smoking, excessive drinking and lack of time or energy for exercise, do.

Most people have a fairly good understanding of their own stress levels, and appropriate attention to monitoring and maintaining your emotional health can make stress easier to handle. Still, in a busy life, stress can sometimes get out of hand without you realizing it.

If you answer yes to a number of the following questions, you may be overstressed and may benefit from tips to manage stress.

Physical Signs of Stress

  • Do you feel constantly run down? Chronic stress results in fatigue and lack of motivation or energy, and can disrupt sleep quality.
  • Do you often feel stomach or intestinal discomfort? People experiencing high levels of stress are three times more likely to have stomachaches and bowel symptoms.
  • Do you regularly have a head, back or neck ache?
  • Do your headaches get worse on the weekend? A sudden drop in stress can prompt migraines. Stress often causes chronic muscle tension resulting in aches and pains.
  • Do you have a sore jaw? This could be a sign of teeth grinding during sleep, and jaw-clenching during the day, often worsened by stress.
  • Do you have inexplicable breakouts? Stress increases inflammation and affects hormones, which can result in acne.
  • Is your hair falling out?
  • Is your skin itchy? Feeling anxious can aggravate eczema, psoriasis or dermatitis.

Mental and Emotional Signs of Stress

  • Do you have trouble concentrating?
  • Do you have trouble sleeping?
  • Do you have unusual dreams? Dreams get increasingly positive as you sleep; when you’re stressed, you wake up more often, disrupting the positive trend. Poor sleep affects brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which help regulate emotional responses to events. If you are not sleeping well for days or weeks, your mental and physical health will suffer.
  • Do you often feel any of the following: anxious, angry, depressed, helpless, out of control, impatient, forgetful, hostile?
  • Are you easily irritated? Chronic or acute stress affects hormones and the neurochemistry of the brain, which in turn produces changes in our ability to regulate our emotions. Negative or irrational emotional responses can increase as stress accumulates over time, or in response to difficult life events.

In Response to Your Everyday Life, Do You Often:

  • Eat to calm down?
  • Speak very fast?
  • Have more than 7 alcoholic beverages per week?
  • Drink a lot of coffee or caffeinated drinks?
  • Smoke cigarettes?
  • Rush without getting anything done?
  • Overwork?
  • Procrastinate?
  • Sleep too much or too little?
  • Overextend yourself?

If you find yourself frequently behaving in any of these ways, stress, with a lack of healthy stress management techniques, may put you at greater risk for heart disease and negatively impact your overall health.

  • Focus your thinking on the positive.
  • Exercise to boost endorphins and relieve mental and physical tension.
  • Connect with people you care about and who make you happy.
  • Accept that there are parts of your life you cannot control. Let go.
  • Consider each request for your time or attention, and sometimes say no.
  • Make time for yourself. Put ‘me-time’ on your calendar.
  • Practice breathing techniques, yoga or other relaxing activities.

Learn more tips to de-stress for heart health with this guide to stress less for strong hearts. If stress or anxiety begins to feel beyond your control, you may benefit from seeing a behavioral health professional.