Could Stress Be Affecting Your Heart Health?

Could Stress Be Affecting Your Heart Health?

Margaret L. Furman, MD, MPH, Director of Preventive Cardiology and Cardiac Rehabilitation, Beth Israel Medical Center

What stresses you out? Looming deadlines? Juggling family members’ schedules? Relationships?

While stress can actually be helpful sometimes, motivating you to finish projects and prioritize your life, it can also be harmful. It can affect you emotionally, behaviorally, cognitively and physically, manifesting in an array of symptoms that you may not even recognize as stress-related.

According to Margaret L. Furman, MD, Attending Physician in the Department of Cardiology at Beth Israel Medical Center, stress is an emotional defensive response to upsetting events or circumstances such as the sickness or death of a loved one, a breakup or the loss of a job, that can manifest physically and have an effect on your heart health. Stress raises your blood pressure, which can contribute to heart disease as well as other conditions. Unhealthy habits, such as eating or smoking that many turn to to combat stress can lead to obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol — all of which also impact your heart health.

The first step in knowing how to handle stress is recognizing it in the first place.

I’m not stressed out — Am I?
If you regularly experience a lot of stress in many areas of your life, you could actually begin to stop noticing it. Over time, stress can have negative effects on your health and well-being — and you can’t address problems if you don’t know they exist, so it’s good to know the symptoms. Be aware of these signs, outlined by Dr. Furman below:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Increased use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco
  • Increased anxiety or feeling overwhelmed
  • Digestive troubles
  • Insomnia
  • Moodiness or increased agitation
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Inability to focus or forgetfulness

Once you’ve identified you are stressed, you can take a look at what is causing it and try to find better solutions.

Deal with and reduce stress
If your first instinct when faced with stress is to buy a pack of cigarettes, pour yourself a drink or have a second helping, you’re not alone — but those reactions are unhealthy and can end up hurting you even more.

Dr. Furman recommends replacing harmful coping mechanisms with healthy ones. “Moderate exercise can help reduce stress. You need to be sweating and getting your heart rate up for 30 minutes for it to count.” Exercise releases endorphins which produce a feeling of well-being.  Burning off extra energy lowers blood pressure and cholesterol and contributes to weight loss.

Taking time for yourself and doing something you enjoy, whether it’s shopping or ice skating or going on vacation, can also help reduce your stress levels. “I think a lot of people get stressed because they take on too much, and they need to take some time for themselves and do something fun,” says Dr. Furman.

Broken heart: Not just a metaphor
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a broken heart. Takotsubo Syndrome, also known as stress cardiomyopathy or Unhappy Heart Syndrome, is triggered by an enormous amount of stress — often a traumatic emotional event — and it causes a surge of hormones that stuns, and suddenly weakens, your heart.

The condition presents similar to a heart attack with chest tightness and shortness of breath. It can affect anyone but is more often seen in postmenopausal women. “It’s usually resolved in a matter of a few days to months. In the end the heart does return to normal,” says Dr. Furman, who recommends you see a doctor if the symptoms persist.

Do your best to avoid certain stressors, and deal with the rest in a healthy way. Your heart will thank you.

If you need help dealing with stress, find a physician by calling 1-855-411-LWNY (5969) or visiting chpnyc.org

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Voice Your Perspective

Yes, I think stress could affect our heart health, even if at some point we stop noticing it. Stress will always be a part of our life, whether we like it or not.

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