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Changing Lifestyles, Changing Habits: Making a Plan to Manage Stress

separator Stress is a part of your life that’s hard to measure, but almost all of us live with some degree of it in our daily lives. Stress affects people differently. Experts have long believed that stress can have an effect on the health of your heart, but there has not been a lot of research that proves it. But in recent years, researchers have been learning more about stress, and discovering that it has actual biological effects on heart health. 

We’ve always known that stress has psychological effects. It makes you feel anxious and nervous. Actual physical symptoms can include:

  • Pounding heart
  • Sweaty palms
  • Upset stomach
  • Urge to drink alcohol or smoke more

But beyond these physical symptoms, it appears that people who are under a lot of stress are more likely to have what’s called “metabolic syndrome,” a condition in which people have three or more of the following: obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides (blood fat), lower levels of HDL, or good cholesterol. When you have metabolic syndrome, you’re at higher risk of heart attack, diabetes and stroke. 

Biological effects of stress
There are two kinds of stress—chronic and acute. Acute stress occurs when you’re in a dangerous situation. It’s a quick response that signals your body to initiate a series of reactions that allow you to act fast. Hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—flood your system to increase blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate. Now you’re better able to run fast or fight the danger that’s confronting you. 

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is the result of the everyday difficulties of life—job pressure, relationship problems, over-stuffed schedules, financial worries, difficulties balancing child rearing and career, etc. When you’re under this constant stress, your body still has the same stress response as it does to acute stress, it’s just that the response continues over a long period of time. As a result, the changes in heart rate put a heavy demand on your cardiovascular system and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and even death. Increases in blood pressure can damage the lining of the artery walls, which can lead to the development of atherosclerosis, or a buildup of plaque that decreases blood flow. 

In a study conducted by the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College in London, researchers found that men who had metabolic syndrome produced more stress hormones—more cortisol and adrenaline—had abnormal heart rates and were more obese than men who did not have metabolic syndrome. Factors such as job strain seemed to play a role in the increased production of the stress hormones. 

How can you reduce the effects of stress?
If you have heart disease, and even if you don’t, it’s a good idea to take action to reduce your stress level. Studies have shown that

  • Chronic and acute stress can be harmful to patients with coronary artery disease
  • Hostility, which is linked to stress, is related to the development of coronary artery disease in men
  • Mental stress during daily life, such as tension, frustration and sadness can more than double the risk of myocardial ischemia

It’s not realistic to try to get rid of all stress in your life, but there are lots of things you can do to manage stress and change the way you respond to it. First you need to identify where the stress is in your life. 

  • If your job is too stressful, do your best to change that. Can you talk with your supervisors or your human resources representative about ways to reduce job stress? If you take on too much work can you talk with colleagues and supervisors about creating more of a balance? If you can’t imagine making changes in the job you currently have, it may even be time to look at different job options.
  • If your personal relationships are troubling you, consider exploring ways to deal with that, such as counseling or simply talking with the individuals about what’s going on.
  • If you’re a perfectionist who never feels satisfied with your accomplishments, see what you can do to work on changing your attitude and being easier on yourself. This can involve taking with a counselor or “life coach,” who may be able to give you a fresh perspective and suggest techniques to help you take the pressure off yourself.
  • If it seems like practically anything at all can stress you out, consider learning some deep breathing exercises or meditation.

A healthy lifestyle helps a lot
In addition to making specific changes that can remove some of the stressors in your life, you can also make some common-sense changes that make it easier for you to handle the stress that does come your way. These include:

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating well
  • Drinking alcohol only in moderation, if at all (no more than one drink a day for women, no more than two drinks per day for men)
  • Taking the time to relax with friends and family

The American Heart Association; F. Pashkow and C. Libov. The Women’s Heart Book. Hyperion, New York, New York, 10023, 2001.
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