Maintaining a healthy weight, eating right, and exercising are all important to heart health, but so is managing stress. According to the American Heart Association, chronic stress can contribute to heart disease — the leading cause of death in the United States.
Of course, everyone experiences stress, and it’s not all negative. In fact, some forms of stress are positive and can motivate us to change something that isn’t serving us.
At the same time, long-term, unmanaged stress can pose health risks. It may lead to high blood pressure, which can pose a risk for heart attack and stroke. ‘
Stress can also prompt the release of cortisol, a hormone that can increase blood cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and triglycerides. Those are all common risk factors for heart disease, says Michele Moldenhauer, a Licensed Professional Counselor with ThedaCare Behavioral Health in Menasha, who also works with cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation patients.
Other Stress Fallouts
Stress can lead to irritability, anger, impatience, anxiety, racing thoughts, depression, and feeling overwhelmed. When people feel that way regularly, they’re more likely to develop poor lifestyle habits or other unhealthy coping strategies, Moldenhauer says.
Unmanaged stress can lead to behaviors that can affect heart health. These include:
- Poor eating habits due to a lack of motivation to cook or eat nutritious meals
- Emotional eating that leads to consuming foods high in sodium, sugar, and fat
- Use of non-prescribed drugs
- Excessive drinking
- Disrupted sleep
Other factors can arise as well. Exercise and connecting with other people are important factors in lowering stress and improving heart health. However, when a person is overwhelmed from chronic stress, they are less likely to exercise and engage with other people, Moldenhauer says.
“People may begin to isolate and have negative self-talk, which can lead to more depressive feelings,” she says. “When there is low motivation and lack of interest in life, people may decide to quit taking their medications or not take them consistently as prescribed. This can result in compromised physical and mental health.”
Research also shows that people with depression can have stickier platelets, making it more likely that a person with heart disease will have a heart attack, according to an article by Johns Hopkins Medicine. The good news is that by treating the depression, the platelets become less sticky again, Moldenhauer says.
In addition, high levels of stress can lead to anxiety, which can promote inflammation in the body. This can include damaging artery linings and setting the stage for the buildup of coronary plaque, according to a Harvard University study. Both can lead to heart disease.
Managing Unhealthy Stress Levels
While high levels of chronic stress can lead to both physical and mental health problems, it’s important to note that stress is very treatable. Moldenhauer shares some strategies:
- Treat physical illness. Take all medications as prescribed, and seek medical attention when needed.
- Eat regular, healthy meals. Good nutrition is essential for healthy physical and mental functioning. Avoid foods with too much sugar, including high-carbohydrate foods that can make people feel overly emotional by causing rapid rises and crashes in blood sugar levels. This can lead to feeling weak, shaky, or emotional.
- Avoid non-prescribed, mood-altering drugs. This includes coffee and other caffeinated beverages. Caffeine can interfere with sleep and lead to feeling jittery and anxious. Lack of sleep can interfere with the ability to maintain mood stability.
- Develop a sleep/wake routine. A consistent sleep/wake routine helps signal the brain that it’s time for sleep. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Stop using electronics two hours before bed, as the blue light emitted interferes with the body’s ability to produce melatonin, which is needed for good sleep. Avoid evening exercise, as this can lead to a second wind and that makes it harder to get to sleep. Promote relaxation by taking a warm bath or shower, listening to soft music, or practicing deep breathing or positive imagery before going to bed.
- Get regular exercise. Physical activity can burn off nervous energy, help with relaxation, and release feel-good endorphins.
- Stay engaged. Connect with others and do healthy activities, such as hobbies, that may bring enjoyment.
- Seek professional help from a counselor. If the above tips don’t lower your stress levels, seek help. Sharing your concerns with a counselor can help you feel better. A professional can help you learn skills and strategies for how to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression.
Help After a Heart Incident
For those who have experienced a heart attack or other cardiac event, it’s important to seek out specialized help to manage the stress and trauma that often follow.
After a heart attack, managing stress and mental health issues is just important as going through the physical aspects of cardiac rehab, Moldenhauer says. A National Institutes of Health study found that depression affects up to 40% of patients after they have suffered an acute cardiac event, while 50% of patients deal with anxiety.
“People with depression and anxiety tend to have poorer outcomes after a heart attack because of the reasons mentioned above related to lack of motivation that make it hard to adhere to needed lifestyle changes like diet and exercise,” Moldenhauer says.
Meeting with a counselor after a cardiac event can be a crucial part of the healing process.
“Counselors can listen to an individual’s experiences and struggles. Sharing problems with a counselor means that the person doesn’t have to go it alone,” Moldenhauer says. “Counselors also can help people learn skills or strategies for coping with stress, anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder in healthy ways.”
Cardiac rehab patients at ThedaCare can meet with a counselor to discuss stressful events in their lives and learn additional coping strategies. They also have access to ongoing support if needed and desired.