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Stress Can Affect the Heart, But Not How You May Think

For many decades, it was believed that stress in and of itself caused heart disease and an increased risk of heart attack. Stress, in fact, has been linked to a number of diseases and disorders and has even been proven to increase the severity of some disorders.

So What is Stress?

Our bodies, like most other animals, are programmed to release hormones during fight or flight moments – times where we feel threatened in some way. Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, the human body was threatened by physical aggressors like animals that might have been encountered during a hunt or while foraging. However, as humans have developed societally, intangible fight or flight stimuli have largely taken over from physical ones. Mental stress, in modern day society, is much more prevalent and sustained – and therein lies the problem.

Sustained fight or flight reactions increase the production of adrenaline and cortisol in the body. It heightens our senses and reactions, but also depletes our bodies making us more susceptible to disease and even slowly breaking down critical function like those of the heart. In other words, if the sense of flight or fight is maintained day, after week, after month, after year, our body’s ability to function normally is compromised.

Back to Stress

Interestingly, recent study has shown that stress itself may not be the cause of heart disease. We all have stressors in our lives – it is inevitable. However, it is how we react to stress – what we do as a result of stress – that makes the biggest difference. Reacting to stress with anxiety, dread, substance use and a general sense of malaise is far more problematic than a more subdued or calm reaction to the stressors around us.

Some common reactions to extreme and uncontrolled stress include:

  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Smoking
  • Withdrawal from exercise
  • Anger and violence
  • Sleeplessness
  • And more

The Bottom Line

For our cardiovascular health, and really our general health, it is important to keep stress under control. Stressors are all around us, they are parts of modern-day life. Preempting it, controlling it and recovering from it are the three most important ways to maintain heart health during stressful times. Of course, there are times where the stress simply feels overwhelming. And even during those times we need a way to address it. Whether it exercise, meditation, refocusing attention, picking up a hobby or letting it all out to a trusted friend, relative or support person, managing stress truly is the best way to ensure that your heart is not affected.

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