Stress is not good for our health. Virtually everyone has heard it at some point, whether it’s from a spouse, doctor, or well-meaning friend. But isn’t practically everyone stressed out? Isn’t being stressed “normal”?
Unfortunately, statistics show how common it is to experience high levels of stress on a regular basis. Americans are some of the most stressed people in the world; the stress experienced by Americans is 20% higher than the global average. Stress may be common, but it shouldn’t be viewed as normal, and it can absolutely have detrimental effects on physical health, including the heart, in particular. Here, cardiologists explain the connection.
Related: Your Live-Well Guide to Maintaining Heart Health and Preventing Heart Disease
How stress affects heart health
When discussing stress and heart health, it’s important to keep in mind that there are different types of stress, especially emotional stress and physical stress (like running up a flight of stairs). Cardiologist and founder of Enabled Healthcare Dr. Bethany Doran, MD, MPH states that both types of stress raise blood pressure. You may think of it as a “fight or flight” reflex. This reflex ensures that people have enough blood pumping through their bodies to keep them safe from potential harm, she says.
Triple Card Certified Cardiologist Dr. Ernst von Schwarz MD, Ph.D., FESC, FACC, FSCAI, a clinical professor of medicine at UCLA, explains that when the body is under stress (again, physical or mental), it causes a surge of hormones to be released in the body. This makes the heart beat faster and blood vessels constrict, which is what raises blood pressure. In moderate amounts, healthy is fine too. After all, exercise is good for you. But both doctors say it’s when we experience continuous stress over a long period of time that the problems start.
Related: Make these 7 lifestyle changes for a healthier heart
Dr. Doran explains that experiencing continuous stress means the heart has to work harder over a long period of time. The heart has to push against the increased pressure in the arteries and, over time, this can cause the heart muscle to increase in size, he says. This is adaptive at first, but over time it can cause problems if there are continuously high pressures because the heart muscles can grow too much. It also causes hypertensionAKA consistently high blood pressure.
Related: 92 ways to stress less this week
How important a business is it to feel constantly stressed and what can you do about it?
Dr. von Schwarz emphasizes that high blood pressure must be taken seriously. Hypertension is considered the silent killer, he says. The main problem is that high blood pressure doesn’t cause pain or any symptoms, so many people don’t take it seriously enough and don’t take the medications they need to lower their blood pressure because they think they don’t need to. [or] they believe that taking certain vitamins and supplements will do the job that is wrong in the vast majority of people.
When high blood pressure isn’t taken seriously, Dr. von Schwarz says it can lead to a heart attack, stroke or premature death. When people say stress can kill you, they are 100% right.
Do you have the alarm clock you needed? Here’s the good news: Both cardiologists say that as soon as someone starts prioritizing stress-reducing activities (like regular exercise, meditation, therapy, and self-care), their health will benefit. . Stress-reducing habits reduce blood pressure and can retrain the heart and nervous system to respond less in a “fight or flight” fashion, says Dr. Doran. However, it is important to note that many people with high blood pressure must take blood pressure-lowering medications and should see a doctor for a prescription.
By the way, the connection between stress and heart health isn’t something only older adults need to be aware of. Both doctors say it’s something even people in their 20s should be aware of. The sooner people have high blood pressure, the worse the outcomes, says Dr. von Schwarz. Dr. Doran agrees, saying it’s important for everyone to have heart-healthy habits, including eating nutrient-dense foods, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and, yes, managing stress.
Being stressed all the time is not good for your mental or physical health; it’s not good at all. While it seems like living in a fight-or-flight state is normal, it’s not a healthy way to live. Remember, prioritizing your mental health AND prioritize your physical health, so take these words to heart.
Next, learn more about the science of stress and what’s going on in the body whenever we experience it.
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