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Heart Disease and Stress

Are stress and heart disease related? Does stress increase the risk of heart disease? Stress is a normal part of life. But if left unmanaged, stress can lead to emotional, psychological, and even physical problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, chest pains, or irregular heart beats.

How Does Stress Increase the Risk for Heart Disease?

Medical researchers aren't sure exactly how stress increases the risk of heart disease. Stress itself might be a risk factor, or it could be that high levels of stress make other risk factors (such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure) worse. For example, if you are under stress, your blood pressure goes up, you may overeat, you may exercise less, and you may be more likely to smoke.

If stress itself is a risk factor for heart disease, it could be because chronic stress exposes your body to unhealthy, persistently elevated levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Studies also link stress to changes in the way blood clots, which increases the risk of heart attack.

Does Stress Affect Everyone the Same?

No. People respond in different ways to events and situations. One person may find an event joyful and gratifying, but another person may find the same event miserable and frustrating. Sometimes, people may handle stress in ways that make bad situations worse by reacting with feelings of anger, guilt, fear, hostility, anxiety, and moodiness. Others may face life's challenges with ease.

What Causes Stress?

Stress can be caused by a physical or emotional change, or a change in your environment that requires you to adjust or respond. Things that make you feel stressed are called "stressors."

Stressors can be minor hassles, major lifestyle changes, or a combination of both. Being able to identify stressors in your life and releasing the tension they cause are the keys to managing stress.

Below are some common stressors that can affect people at all stages of life.

  • Illness, either personal or of a family member or friend
  • Death of a friend or loved one
  • Problems in a personal relationship
  • Work overload
  • Starting a new job
  • Unemployment
  • Retirement
  • Pregnancy
  • Crowds
  • Relocation
  • Daily hassles
  • Legal problems
  • Financial concerns
  • Perfectionism.

What Are the Warning Signs of Stress?

When you are exposed to long periods of stress, your body gives warning signals that something is wrong. These physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral warning signs should not be ignored. They tell you that you need to slow down. If you continue to be stressed and you don't give your body a break, you are likely to develop health problems like heart disease. You could also worsen an existing illness.

Below are some common warning signs and symptoms of stress.

Physical signs

Dizziness, general aches and pains, grinding teeth, clenched jaws, headaches, indigestion, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, racing heart, ringing in the ears, stooped posture, sweaty palms, tiredness, exhaustion, trembling, weight gain or loss, upset stomach

Mental signs

Constant worry, difficulty making decisions, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, lack of creativity, loss of sense of humor, poor memory

Emotional signs

Anger, anxiety, crying, depression, feeling powerless, frequent mood swings, irritability, loneliness, negative thinking, nervousness, sadness

Behavioral signs

Bossiness, compulsive eating, critical attitude of others, explosive actions, frequent job changes, impulsive actions, increased use of alcohol or drugs, withdrawal from relationships or social situations

WebMD Medical Reference

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