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Your Heart & Stress: Managing Stress the Healthy Way

David Newcomer, DO
ACMC-Willmar, Internal Medicine

Life can be stressful. Some stress can be good for you. But too much stress can be harmful to your health and your heart.

When you are stressed, your body's "fight-or-flight" reaction takes over, flooding your body with adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. This increases your heart rate, redirects blood flow to the muscular system, releases fats into the bloodstream for use as energy, increases breathing rate, tenses your muscle and increases your blood's clotting ability. So when you have constant stress, your body continues to experience those symptoms. In the long-term, this can negatively impact your health, putting you at an increased risk for potential sleep problems, digestive problems, obesity, depression, memory impairment and heart disease.

Your Heart on Stress

Prolonged stress can significantly damage your heart, causing problems like:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmia)
  • Increased risk for heart disease, heart attack or stroke
  • Higher cholesterol levels
  • A weakened immune system

More research is needed to determine how stress contributes to heart disease. However, when people are stressed, they often turn to harmful habits like cigarette smoking, overeating or drinking to "calm" themselves or reduce their stress, putting themselves at even greater risk for heart disease and stroke.

Handling Stress the Healthy Way

Stress is a part of life. The bad news: stress may not go away. The good news: you can learn to better manage it effectively with these strategies:

  • Eat a healthy diet. Be careful about what you eat. Stress commonly causes overeating and other bad eating habits, and adds to your risk of heart disease and other health concerns.
  • Get regular exercise. Aerobic exercise releases endorphins, which help you feel better and maintain a positive attitude.
  • Get plenty of rest. Your body can't function well and fight stress if you don't get enough sleep.
  • Relax every day by doing something you enjoy—even if it's just for 30 minutes and you have to build it into your schedule. It may seem counterproductive, but your body will thank you for it.
  • Make note of what stresses you out. Avoid the stressors you can and make a plan to tackle those you can't. Learn to let go of what you cannot control.
  • Practice your time-management skills. Ask for help when you need it, set your priorities and stick to them and pace yourself. Sometimes you just have to say "no" without beating yourself up about it.
  • Be positive and praise yourself for a job well done. It's okay to recognize yourself for everything you are doing well!
  • Know that it's okay to seek professional help. Sometimes life's stressors get to be too much to handle on our own. Professional help can play a major role in helping you effectively manage your stress.

Like it or not, stress is a fact of life. How you channel it is up to you. Let it overload you or manage the everyday stress in your life for a less stressed and healthier you.