Discover what tension is doing to your ticker, and how to keep it at bay. You've heard the melodramatic sports fan bemoan, "My heart can't take another overtime." Or the city slicker who rants, "This rush-hour traffic is raising my blood pressure." But what's really happening physiologically when we get stressed out? Does stress hurt our hearts?
The short answer is, yes.
Stress on the Inside
Stress is our natural reaction to unpredictable situations. But when we constantly react to everyday unpredictability—spilled coffee, a flat tire, a pressing work deadline, a burned casserole—with chronic anger, frustration or irritability, look out.
Acutely stressful periods or events can take an internal toll. One study found that long-term traumatic stress increases inflammation in heart disease patients—significant because inflammation accelerates the disease.
Inside our bodies, stress releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol into our blood. The heart beats faster, blood vessels constrict—temporarily raising blood pressure—and glucose flows into the bloodstream to give our muscles energy to act. This same "fight or flight" response that enabled cavemen to survive is mobilized in us. Even though our "threats" aren't deadly, the body reacts the same way. And constantly being on high alert builds up.
Persistently high levels of adrenaline and cortisol can thicken blood vessels and tend to be associated with high blood pressure. With age, the additional narrowing from plaque buildup in the arteries creates a recipe for heart disease.
Stress on the Outside
The negative health consequences of stress aren't limited to the heart-pounding adrenaline rush inside our bodies. High-stress people often develop unhealthy coping strategies.
It almost evolves into a syndrome of bad behaviors: We're under stress. We become more testy and argue with our spouses and families. We tend to overeat. People who are smokers under stress go get another cigarette to help calm themselves down. This perpetuates a cycle that may have started out with a minor event.
Other body-battering stress responses may include increased use of alcohol or increased use of medications to manage consequences of stress, such as insomnia, digestive problems and headaches.
What to Do About It
Personality type and temperament play a role in how you handle stress. Still, high-stress individuals can change their mind-set about stressful situations.
Experts emphasize reaching out. There's a social support that comes from the understanding and caring of a community. Social support can also help you stay on track with stress reduction.
We need to rediscover the lost art of time away from the grind. You've got to get away sometimes.
Remember, Rome wasn't built in a day. It's going to take some time for any of these strategies to play out. The model for de-stressing a revved-up life has a parallel in fitness. Researchers have found that even walking 10 minutes a day three times a week is helpful. The important thing with stress is to create an environment that's a winning environment for you, but do it one step at a time.