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Misconceptions About Stress and Heart Health

How many times have you been told to “quit stressing out…you’re asking for a heart attack”? Chances are, it’s quite a few. With today’s frenetic lifestyle, filled with obligations and pressures, stress has become a topic near the top of everyone’s mind. Many of us stress ourselves out trying to figure out how to eliminate stress from our lives and further stress ensues when we realize that we simply can’t. Unfortunately, stress has become a central part of modern life. Long before today’s lifestyles, the common misconception was born that stress leads to heart troubles. After all, it makes sense…there are times where stress makes us feel like our hearts will burst out of our chests. Indeed, stress can affect our bodies in a multitude of ways from mental acuity to breathing and muscle tension.

However, there are few studies that tie stress itself to a significant increase in heart disease*. Most of our knowledge is anecdotal.

Before stressing out about how the sentence above flies in the face of everything you know, let’s dig a little deeper. While stress itself is not a direct cause of heart disease and general poor health, stress does have an effect on the way we conduct our lives. This in turn may lead to poor lifestyle decisions that ultimately do affect our bodies in negative ways:

  • Constant stress often leads to poor sleep behaviors, which in turn can affect our mental acuity during the day and even our heart health over the long-term. Sleep is critical for the regenerative processes in our bodies and chronic sleep deficiency affects a wide swath of Americans
  • Stress, due to both chemical and emotional factors, can also make us eat more, adding to the risk of gaining excess weight and, in turn, harming our hearts. When stressed, our bodies release the hormone known as cortisol which activates hunger. And constant frustration, anxiety and even depression caused by stress can make us eat even when we are not hungry. Plus, if we’re being honest, we rarely eat healthy foods when stressed – It’s the pizzas, hot dogs, burgers and high calorie desserts that we crave
  • Stress can even make us feel tired and sluggish, wanting to stay in bed or on the couch rather than getting out to exercise. Being that regular exercise is a critical component of heart health, the sedentary lifestyle can be very damaging
  • Finally, stress can promote our vices such as smoking or drinking in excess, both of which have negative effects on the heart and general health

So, in conclusion, we need to focus on a two-pronged approach when it comes to stress and our hearts. First, there’s nothing to lose and much to gain by reducing the stress in our lives. We will be able to enjoy our surroundings and the people close to us a little bit more, save time previously spent worrying and likely make better decisions for ourselves and those we love. But, since we can’t eliminate stress entirely, we also must learn how to manage it. Through a combination of stress busting activities and minimizing techniques, which will be discussed in an upcoming blog, we can ensure that stress does not affect our hearts as much as it may have in the past.

* People with PTSD, anxiety and depression stimulate amygdala activity. A 2017 study shows that this can, in turn, contribute to heart disease. We still need to determine if chronic low-level stress from daily activities does the same.

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