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Don’t Stress Your Heart Out

We know stress can take a toll on our lives and that limiting stress is important for long-term health, but how does stress affect our bodies, and most importantly, what can we do about it?

A lot, actually, but first things first.

mature women doing yoga 

How Stress Affects Us

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, long-term activation of your body’s stress response system, along with prolonged exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones, can put you at risk for:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Depression
  • Heart disease and high blood pressure
  • Stomach issues such as diarrhea, vomiting or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

During stress, as part of the fight or flight response, the body responds with elevated blood pressure in order to increase and redistribute energy and also activates the immune system. However, prolonged stress over time forces the heart to work harder, which can lead to hypertrophy and adversely suppress immunity, digestion, sleep and reproductive systems.

Sudden emotional stress, such as the death of a child, has also been linked to an unusual type of heart attack called “takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” where the heart takes on a different shape. The two primary triggers of this condition are physical ones (such as an infection) or an emotional type of “shock.” Because of the latter cause, many have labeled takotsubo cardiomyopathy “broken heart syndrome.”

A recent study presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions conference found that stress from traumatic events as well as long-term stress at home and work led to a nearly 200% higher risk of new Type 2 diabetes cases in older women.  Diabetes, a disease in which the body doesn’t regulate blood sugar properly, can lead to a host of health problems, including heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.

How to Identify and Manage Stress

  1. Recognize the signs of stress on your body, such as sleep difficulty, increased alcohol or other substance use, feelings of depression, low or no energy or being easily angered.
  2. Talk to your doctor or health care provider.
  3. Get regular exercise. A 30-minute walk can provide a mental boost to help you reset and recharge.
  4. Do something relaxing, such as yoga, tai chi or other gentle forms of recreation.
  5. Set goals and priorities and learn to say no to those that overload your schedule or attention.
  6. Stay connected to people who can provide emotional or other types of support.
  7. If you’re overwhelmed, seek help from a health professional.

Taking control of stress will help both mentally and physically, so don’t let it get the best of you and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s a sign of strength and perseverance, similar to an athlete who gets coaching to improve his or her game.

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