Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., impacting both men and women, and most racial and ethnic groups. While high blood pressure and high cholesterol are key risk factors for heart disease, so too are external factors like trauma and stress.
Catharine Malmsten, MD, a Cardiologist at Dignity Health Mercy Medical Group in Elk Grove, shares her insight on how stress and heart health correlate, along with advice on how we can combat stressors in our lives to remain healthy, especially during a pandemic.
How Stress Can Affect Your Health
A stressful situation sets off a chain of events in the body. When stressed, your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up, causing your blood pressure to rise. These reactions are natural and prepare your body to confront a stressful situation, otherwise known as the "fight or flight" response. When stress is constant, your body remains in a state of “fight or flight” for prolonged periods of time, which can exert real physiologic effects on the body – including the heart.
Severe and sudden stress can also affect the heart greatly. People who've received traumatic news have, in rare cases, suffered from what is known as Broken Heart Syndrome. Dr. Malmsten shared that this condition occurs with a trigger of severe stress, such as the death of a loved one. Much like a heart attack, people with Broken Heart Syndrome can experience chest pain and shortness of breath, but until evaluated by a cardiologist, it’s difficult to differentiate this syndrome from a heart attack. Fortunately, it’s a temporary and reversible heart condition in most people.
Stress also plays a role in behaviors that increase heart disease risk, such as smoking, physical inactivity and overeating. For example, some people may increase their alcohol intake, smoke cigarettes or turn to unhealthy foods in response to their chronic stress. Unfortunately, these behaviors can increase a person’s blood pressure and cholesterol levels, both factors that can damage artery walls.
Managing Your Stress
Dr. Malmsten encourages people to talk to others to help manage stress before it impacts their health, especially now. “With the decline of social interaction due to the pandemic, it is important to make a concentrated effort to stay in contact with people. Whether a phone call, text message, video conference, etc., human interaction can play an instrumental role in stress relief and overall health,” said Dr. Malmsten. She suggests a socially distanced walk with a friend or family member, as physical activity is also good for your heart. If stress, anxiety or depression does begin to take a toll on your overall health, please talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.
Other lifestyle choices that can help keep your stress regulated and your heart healthy is eating a healthy diet, staying active, quitting smoking (if you’re a smoker) and avoiding second-hand smoke. Only drink alcohol in moderation and maintaining your cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
Don’t Delay Your Health Needs
If you are experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath or any concerning symptoms – please don’t ignore the signs. Get in touch with your doctor and schedule an appointment and get the care you need. When it comes to heart attacks, time is a heart muscle. If you are concerned about your heart health, consider scheduling a virtual visit or in-person appointment with your physician.