Long-term or chronic stress can have a negative impact on the heart and the entire cardiovascular system. The specific results of chronic stress have been identified as contributors to heart disease, high blood pressure, increased cholesterol rates and other factors dangerous to the heart. Cardiovascular disease accounts for about one of every three deaths in the United States, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Heart attacks are the leading cause of death and there is overwhelming evidence that reducing chronic stress helps to decrease the risk of heart disease.
Chronic stress refers to a long-term state of stress, as opposed to acute stress, a reaction to a one-time or short term event. Acute stress can be caused by running late for a meeting, having to slam on brakes to avoid an accident while driving or other momentary reactions that increase the heart rate. Blood pressure and breathing also accelerate until the event is over.
Chronic stress is the result of longer-term situations. These can include marital or employment problems, substance abuse and financial instability. Loneliness has now been identified as a cause of chronic stress. Lingering responsibilities, such as caring for aging parents while raising children, can also prolong stress. Physical and mental illness also contribute, as well as school stress and nighttime shift work without enough time for rest.
Among the dangers of chronic stress to the heart and cardiovascular system are a prolonged increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Additionally, chronic stress can cause inflammation in the blood vessels, including the coronary arteries. Spasms in the coronary arteries may also occur. Because stress increases the body’s need for oxygen, it causes the heart to pump harder than it usually does to supply it. Stress can also be attributed to abnormal heart rhythms, chest pain and difficulty in breathing.
People react to stress in many different ways. The way they react may be the first signals that indicate that they are experiencing it. Chronic stress may start as a job begins to become more demanding or a relationship starts to show some flaws. It may then slowly accelerate. Some characteristics have been identified as evidence that chronic stress has developed. Among them are too much or too little sleep, eating in an attempt to calm down and insisting on working much more than usual. Increasing activity without accomplishing much to justify the extra busy-ness, increasing smoking or alcohol consumption and procrastinating are also signs of chronic stress. Speaking or eating more rapidly and trying to do too many things at once also may indicate the presence of chronic stress.
If chronic stress appears to be present, consulting a physician or a cardiologist is the first step toward reducing it and the risk it poses to the heart. If a heart condition already exists, medication to lower heart rate or stabilize heart rhythms may be prescribed. A referral to a mental health professional may also be made.
Lifestyle changes already proven to reduce stress and improve heart health can be incorporated into the daily or weekly routine. These include regular exercise, dietary changes such as adding more fruit, vegetables and whole grain, and eliminating smoking.
Taking time to relax and meditate can reduce stress. Reading, prayer and utilizing relaxation practices have also proven effective. Staying close to family and loved ones and actively working to calm relationships with friends and co-workers are other ways to eliminate stress from the daily routine.
A physician or cardiologist can help create a plan to manage chronic stress based on the conditions that each individual experiences.
To learn more about causes and management of stress, log on to vascularhealthclinics.org.
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