Whether you're sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic or have a deadline looming, you can feel it happening. Your heart starts to race, your breathing becomes shallow and your chest hurts. Maybe you develop a pounding headache or an upset stomach. You feel the stress coursing through your blood and wonder, can stress cause a heart attack?
Stress is often cited as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The amount of stress you experience in your work and home life, and how you respond to that stress, can lead to health problems.
But when do the effects of stress on the heart become problematic? How much stress is too much? Here's what you need to know.
The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Stress
First things first, stress is a normal response in your body that has developed to help you survive.
For example, if you're being chased, your body activates its fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline and other hormones flood your system to help you escape. Your eyes dilate. Your breathing and heart rate shoot up. Once the threat is gone, your body returns to its normal state.
However, thanks to the always-on work culture and non-stop notifications, many people experience chronic stress and the body doesn't have a chance to reset and recalibrate.
According to NPR, persistent stress can trigger your immune system and lead to inflammation in the body. Prolonged inflammation can cause plaque buildup on your artery walls and the narrowing of blood vessels, which can make you more susceptible to cardiovascular disease like a heart attack or stroke. Plus, your heart has to work harder when under stress.
Can Stress Cause a Heart Attack?
If you're constantly in a heightened state of stress, even when there isn't a real or perceived threat, that's when the effects of stress on the heart can start to cause problems.
A study published in BMJ found that people who have a stress disorder, like post-traumatic stress disorder, or who have experienced a traumatic event, like the death of a loved one, are 37 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a recent diagnosis of heart disease, procedure or a heart attack can cause additional stress, burdening your already taxed cardiovascular system.
However, according to the American Heart Association, how we cope with to stressful events may play an important role in the development of heart disease.
For example, after a run-in with a co-worker or a fight with a friend, people often turn to comfort food like ice cream, fried food or cookies. Others may pour themselves a glass — or three — of wine, smoke or binge watch their favorite TV show. These behaviors can damage your blood vessels and increase your blood pressure, raising your risk of heart disease.
How to Manage Stress
While you can't completely eliminate stress from your life, you can control how you respond to the every day stressors in and bring your heart rate down a few notches.
- Exercise: Physical activity is a tried-and-true way to blow off some steam. Not only does exercise release feel-good endorphins into your system, it also is good for your heart. It helps to keep your blood pressure in check and strengthens your heart muscles, too. Even a quick walk around the office can help!
- Eat well: While it's tempting to turn to comfort food, eating sugary and processed foods can cause your energy levels to crash. Stick with foods with whole grains, proteins and healthy fats. It will not only keep you satiated throughout the day, but it's also good for your cardiovascular system.
- Nurture relationships: Whether its your partner, friends, co-workers or neighbors, spending time with others can help boost your mood and melt away the stress from the day.
- Meditation or other relaxation practices: Whether it's meditation, a yoga class or a few minutes of deep breathing, cultivating these practices can help tame stress. They can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, aka the rest-and-digest system and your body's natural relaxation response. If you're not sure where to start, try a meditation app or take five deep breaths.
- Unplug: Most of us are tethered to our phones, which at times can feel like a ticking stress time bomb. So put away your phone for a few minutes and do something you love, which will lower your stress levels. Take a walk in the woods. Make art. Practice piano or another musical instrument. Read a book.
While stress has a real impact on our bodies, you can escape it. Instead, take the time to identify your stress triggers and practice the relaxation techniques that can help you keep it under control.