April is Stress Awareness Month, a good time to learn how stress affects the heart, and how to reduce your stress levels to improve your health. Dealing with stress on a daily basis can take a toll on your heart. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure—a major risk factor for heart disease—as well as unhealthy habits that can increase heart disease risk, such as smoking, physical inactivity and overeating, says Duane Bryan, M.D., Chief Medical Director of Nuclear Cardiology and Co-Director of Cardiac CT Angiography at Nyack Hospital.
“Stress can increase the levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can increase blood pressure,” Dr. Bryan says. “It can also increase inflammation in the body, which leads to a buildup of plaque in the arteries.” For some people, dealing with severe chronic stress can be as harmful to the heart as tobacco smoking, Dr. Bryan notes.
Research indicates reducing stress can benefit the heart. One study published in 2016 by the American Heart Association found heart patients who underwent a cardiac rehabilitation program that included stress management were 50% less likely to have a heart attack, stroke, recurrent chest pains requiring hospitalization or even death in the following three years, compared with patients who underwent cardiac rehab without learning how to reduce stress.
Ways to Lessen the Stress
One of the biggest stress inducers for many people is work, Dr. Bryan says. “I tell my patients they have to learn how to say no at work,” he says. “This is especially important for people who have other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity or smoking.”
Family-related issues are another common contributor to chronic stress. “Sometimes removing yourself from a stressful situation at home or at work and taking some deep breaths helps,” Dr. Bryan says. “For ongoing marital problems and other long-lasting family issues, counseling can be helpful.”
Other tips for reducing stress:
- Exercise. Find an activity you enjoy—such as walking, swimming or biking—to relieve stress.
- Try yoga. Relaxation techniques such as yoga or t’ai chi can help reduce stress. Meditating is also a good stress reducer.
- Get support. If you feel overwhelmed with family responsibilities, ask for help from your spouse, friends or relatives.
- Spend time with others. Make time for friends. If you live alone, consider joining a support group. Research indicates people who encounter major life stresses can deal with them more easily if they can lean on friends or family for support.
Too many people wait until they’ve already had a heart attack before they recognize how much stress they have in their lives. “People don’t realize how important stress is in contributing to cardiovascular disease—we have to change that mindset. It’s important to find time to relax and enjoy simple pleasures every day—even if it’s only for five minutes,” Dr. Bryan says. “Take time to think about something that’s positive in your life.”