In a modern world, it is nearly impossible to avoid stress. Causes of stress include family or work issues, major life changes, health concerns and emotional problems. Occasional stress is healthy, but chronic stress takes a toll on the body including the heart. Prolonged exposure to stress can encourage people to engage in unhealthy behaviors that raise risks for heart disease, and stress can create real physiological changes within the body.
Physiological Effects of Stress: Blood Pressure
When under stress, the body releases adrenaline, which causes the heart rate and blood pressure to rise. This can be helpful and healthy in the event of an emergency but becomes harmful to the body over time. In an attempt to dull chronic stress, some people smoke or drink alcohol in excess, behaviors which can also contribute to high blood pressure.
Physiological Effects of Stress: Cholesterol
When LDL cholesterol is too high, it can build up in the arteries and lead to heart disease. Research shows that stress has an indirect effect on cholesterol levels. It can result in unhealthy dietary habits and increased body weight, which are proven risks factors for high cholesterol.
Physiological Effects of Stress: Inflammation
Chronic inflammation is associated with a range of health conditions including heart disease. A new study conducted by researchers from Ohio State University, UCLA, Northwestern University and the University of British Columbia shows that the body's immune cells change as a result of chronic stress.
When responding to prolonged stress, immune cells go into battle mode, as if the body were experiencing infection or trauma. This can lead to high levels of inflammation. Results showed that mice exposed to chronic stress and people with a low socioeconomic status (a predictor of chronic stress) showed higher levels of inflammation than counterparts experiencing lower levels of stress.
Related: The Stress-Menopause Connection
Ways to Counteract the Effects of Stress
Engaging in stress-relieving activities and managing unhealthy behaviors can help counteract the effects of stress on the heart and the rest of the body.
Get adequate exercise. Physical exercise leads to the release of endorphins, which are feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain that help counter stress. Regular exercise also strengthens the heart muscle, lowers blood pressure, and helps people maintain a heart-healthy body weight.
Keep a positive attitude. Research shows that a positive attitude helps reduce the chances of death in people with heart disease. Attitude-raising activities include watching funny movies, taking a gratitude inventory and engaging in positive visualization.
Try stress-relieving activities. A number of activities can help relieve stress. While some people enjoy reading, painting, taking a bubble bath or listening to soft music, others prefer yoga or meditation. No matter what the technique, it's important to utilize it regularly if experiencing chronic stress.