Managing Stress Is Important to Your Heart Health

SPRINGFIELD — Americans are stressed today more than ever before, and it’s affecting their heart health.

According to the American Institute of Stress, 77% of people experience stress that affects their physical health, while the Global Organization for Stress reports that 75% of Americans experienced moderate to high stress levels in the past month. Chronic stress can affect the immune, digestive, sleep, reproductive, and cardiovascular systems.

February is American Heart Month, a time when all people can focus on their cardiovascular health.

“Studies have shown how risk factors such as smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes can lead to cardiovascular disease. While there is a lack of conclusive data, we know there is an association between emotional stress levels and increased rates of heart attacks,” said Dr. Amir Lotfi, associate chief, Division of Cardiology, Baystate Health.

He cited a study by Harvard Medical School researchers published in the British health journal Lancet that attempted to describe how increased activity in the amygdala, a brain region involved in processing intense emotions, has been associated with inflammation in the blood vessels and increase of cardiovascular events.

Stress can be the result of many pressures from work, family, school, and other daily responsibilities, as well as brought about by losing a job, the loss of a loved one, divorce or illness, even worry over COVID-19.

“We also know that stress can cause chest pain that isn’t necessarily associated with having a heart attack,” Lotfi said. “Anxiety can increase the body’s stress hormones, cause hyperventilation, and an increased risk of muscle spasms. This can lead to similar symptoms as a heart attack, and it can be difficult to distinguish chest pain due to impaired blood flow to the blood vessels of the heart compared to chest pain due to anxiety or other causes. The important thing to remember is that ‘time is muscle,’ and if you have chest pain which is new or has not been evaluated previously, you should get checked immediately.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, if you take practical steps to manage your stress, you may reduce the risk of negative health effects. Among the tips offered to cope with stress are:

• Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and improve your health.

• Try a relaxing activity. Explore relaxation or wellness programs, which may incorporate meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities.

• Set goals and priorities. Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say ‘no’ to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.

• Stay connected. You are not alone. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family, or the community of religious organizations.

“Don’t let stress overtake you,” Lotfi said. “If you are feeling overwhelmed, talk to your healthcare provider, who can discuss treatments that can help ease your stress and help to keep you out of the cardiologist’s office.”