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Is Your Job Wrecking Your Heart?

How job stress may affect your heart's health, and what you can do about it.
WebMD Feature

With the U.S. unemployment rate high, most people today are happy just to have a job and a regular paycheck. Although it may be preferable to be gainfully employed, work ranks at the top of most people’s list of major sources of stress.

In fact, the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Stress in America Survey found that work is cited as one of the top three contributors to stress, second only to worries about money and followed closely by fear about the state of the economy.  

Experts and under-the-gun workers everywhere have long known that high stress levels play a big, and often negative, role in the state of our health. Among other things, research has shown that high-stress jobs put a strain on our hearts.  Extreme job stress has even been shown to bring on heart attacks and sudden cardiac death.

But more than the job itself, experts say, are the conditions that lead someone to feel stressed about his or her work. One person’s pressure cooker can be another’s dream job.

“A lot of it comes down to individual reactions to stress,” says Tara Narula, MD, a cardiologist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “You can put two people in the same job, which you might say from the outside looks demanding, but it’s how you psychologically and physiologically react to that stress that would determine what your cardiovascular reaction is.”

The bottom line, Narula says, is that there is undoubtedly a mind-body connection as it relates to health.

The Job Stress-Heart Connection

Job stress impacts the body in direct and indirect ways, Narula says. Directly, stress may damage the blood vessels, specifically the heart's coronary arteries.

We count on our coronary arteries to expand in order to allow more nutrients and oxygen to make their way to the heart muscle at times of physical stress. With psychological stress, however, these arteries can paradoxically constrict, reducing nutrient supply just when it’s needed most. 

Narula says the hormonal changes associated with stress make any plaque that might be present more vulnerable to rupturing. When this happens, a heart attack can occur.

Indirectly, uncontrolled job stress may put pressure on the heart by raising blood pressure, heart rate, and even cholesterol levels. And platelets, which cause blood to clot, can become more likely to clump, making heart attacks more likely.

Finally, job stress has a tendency to reduce one’s attentiveness to healthful lifestyle choices, increasing likelihood of risky behaviors like smoking or drinking, which can exacerbate known risk factors for cardiac disease.

Consider Your Coworkers

One of the chief contributors to job stress is your direct superior and whether or not you get along with him or her, says Joseph A. Diamond, MD, director of nuclear cardiology at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

“In job situations, it’s not just the type of job but also who you’re working with," Diamond says. "And the interaction with your coworkers is an extremely important factor in whether a job is stressful,” he says.

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