Balancing work and family life is tough, not to mention finding relaxing time just for yourself. However, it’s important to find time in your schedule to slow down and recover from stress, especially if your work-life balance has been off lately. Long-term, chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and may increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Linking stress and cardiovascular health
Everyone feels the physical and mental effects of stress differently. Although we’re unsure exactly how stress impacts cardiovascular health, the following reasons have been hypothesized:
- Increased levels of stress may worsen other cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diet. For example, during stressful times, you may be more likely to reach for high-fat foods instead of lean proteins and fresh vegetables. Over time, this could lead to weight gain and an increase in blood pressure and cholesterol. Intense emotions can also lead to a heart attack, serious heart rhythm problems, and death (sudden release of adrenaline and atherosclerotic plaque rupture).
- Chronic stress may lead to elevated levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, both of which have been linked to hypertension, diabetes, blood clots, and heart attacks. Risk of a heart attack is 2.3 to 9 times higher for one to two hours following intense feelings of anger.
Steps to reduce stress
Regardless, you can take control and start reducing stress and your risk for cardiovascular disease. I recommend taking these steps:
- Identify the causes – Whether it’s over-scheduling your life or having toxic relationships, learning the source of your stress is the best way to reduce it. After identifying the cause, take steps to eliminate it. For example, carving out time to relax at least one evening each week can go a long way toward reducing stress. Identify your stress level and follow an appropriate treatment plan.
- Get enough rest – You should be getting between 7.5 and 8 hours of sleep every night, although you may find you function better on slightly more. In addition to lowering stress levels, getting enough sleep can help improve physical and cognitive function.
- Eat healthy and exercise regularly – Make sure your diet includes a wide variety of foods, such as fresh vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and healthy fats. In addition, try incorporating at least 30 minutes of exercise each day. If you have trouble fitting in a 30-minute workout, try fitting exercise into your daily routine by parking further away from your destination or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Reach out if you need help – Ask for help if you can’t gain control over stress on your own—isolation only makes stress worse. Contact your primary care physician for a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist for a mental stress evaluation. In addition to assessing your situation, finding underlying stressors and checking for anxiety and depression, he or she will create a treatment plan and prescribe medication, if appropriate. Also, good support from family and friends can reverse the effect of depression on cardiac morbidity and mortality.
Find out your risk for heart disease by taking a free HEARTaware risk assessment. Individuals determined to be at risk will receive a complimentary consultation at Shawnee Mission Health. To match with a doctor in your area, use our Find a Doctor tool.