Everyone has some stress in their lives, from money worries to a scary diagnosis or the death of a loved one. But stress isn’t just unpleasant, it can also affect your health, especially your heart health.
In 2004, research, called the INTERHEART study, looked at over 24,000 people in 52 countries and found that those with high stress had a higher risk of heart attacks and other heart problems. People who had high levels of stress in four areas—work stress, home stress, financial stress, and major life events like a death in the family—were the most likely to have a heart attack.
Now there’s even more evidence that stress can harm the heart. A recent study from Sweden looked at people who had been diagnosed with a stress-related problem like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety following a challenging event, and then compared them to their siblings who didn’t have a stress disorder. Those with stress-related problems were more likely than their brothers and sisters to have a heart attack or dangerous blood clots.
New data from a Ohio State University study found similar results when researchers studied the effects of stressful life events in over 11,000 black women over a period of about 12 years. Those who had difficult life events like the death of a spouse or losing a job were more likely to experience chest pain (angina), heart disease, stroke, or heart failure.
How does stress harm the heart? Long-term stress causes the immune system to kick into gear, triggering inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of blocked arteries and may lead to limited blood flow to the heart muscle or brain, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Additionally, stress often leads to poor food choices, an increase in cigarette smoking or return to smoking, adding to heart risk even more. Even though stress is unavoidable in life, there are proven ways to reduce its effect on you. Here are some good things you can do:
Eat well. A heart healthy diet, like the Mediterranean Diet, does double duty. It lowers the risk of heart attack, and it helps to calm stress. Eating lots of refined carbohydrates and sugar—found in snacks, sweets, soda, and processed grains—does the opposite and may increase inflammation. Try to eat whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lean protein (poultry/fish), and lower-fat dairy foods. Avoid fast and processed foods as much as possible.
Exercise. People who are active have better mental health. Just taking a walk can boost your mood and lower stress. Walking in nature can be even more soothing and healing.
Hang out with others. Make friends when times are good and you’ll have support when times aren’t so good. Having people you can turn to during difficult times reduces stress and makes you feel better.
Learn to meditate. One good type is mindfulness meditation, which helps you focus on what is happening in the present—not the past or the future. To try it, sit quietly and pay attention to your breathing. When your mind wanders, gently guide it back to your breath. If you practice this method for a few minutes every day, you may react less to stressful events. Or, try a yoga class. Following the instructor keeps your mind focused on the present and you’ll benefit from improved muscle strength, flexibility, and balance, too!
Seek treatment. If stress is making it hard to function well, get help from a doctor or a mental health counselor or therapist. You don’t have to suffer alone.
For more information about the effects of inflammation on your heart—and to learn about tests that measure inflammation—go to KnowYourRisk.com.