Almost all of us know about the conventional risk factors for heart attacks and most health check-ups correctly identify conditions like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, etc but unfortunately, stress as a cause of heart attack is often missed and neglected. There is often difficulty in the self-realisation of excess stress by patients or their consulting doctors.
Stress is a giant killer and its presence alone is enough to cause a massive heart attack. On top of busy life, Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected the quality of mental health and stress which is a normal part of life has exponentially risen.
Stress can come from physical causes like not getting enough sleep or having an illness or it can be emotional, worrying about not having enough money, death of a loved one and can also come from less dramatic causes like everyday obligations and pressures that make you feel that you are not in control. However, in the pandemic, the stress of social and emotional distancing, fear of contracting the disease, loss of near and dear ones and loss of job and daily earnings have made life even more stressful.
In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Dr Brajesh Kumar Kunwar, Senior Cardiologist, Head and Director, Department of Cardiology at Medicover Hospitals in Navi Mumbai, shared, “The body’s response to stress is supposed to protect us but if it’s constant, it can harm us. The hormone cortisol is released in response to stress. Studies suggest that the high levels of cortisol from long-term stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar and blood pressure. These are common risk factors for heart disease. This stress can also cause changes that promote the buildup of plaque deposits in the arteries. Similarly, catecholamines which are released in bursts in response to stressful events cause surges in blood pressure responsible for heart attacks and heart failures.”
He revealed, “Even minor stress can trigger heart problems like poor blood flow to the heart muscle. This is a condition in which the heart doesn’t get enough blood or oxygen. And, long-term stress can affect how the blood clots. This makes the blood stickier and increases the risk of stroke and heart attack. In addition, people who have a lot of stress may smoke or choose other unhealthy ways to deal with stress. Common responses to stress include aches and pains, decreased energy and sleep, feelings of anxiety, anger and depression, impatience and forgetfulness.”
Given that people respond to stressful situations differently where some react strongly to a situation while others are relaxed and unconcerned, Dr Brajesh Kumar Kunwar asserted that luckily, you can decrease the effect of stress on your body. He suggested, “First, identify situations that cause stress. Although difficult, try to control your mental and physical reactions to these stressful situations.” He recommended trying the following to help manage stress and keep your heart healthy:
1. Do plenty of exercises
Exercise can help counteract the harmful effects of stress. For heart health, aim for at least 30 to 40 minutes, 5 to 6 days a week. Exercise can help to improve cardiovascular health by controlling weight, improving cholesterol, and lowering blood pressure. Exercise has another benefit that lowers stress. People who exercise have a reduced physical response to stress. Their blood pressure and heart rates don’t go up as high as people under stress who don’t exercise. Regular exercise can also reduce the risk of depression, another risk factor for heart disease.
Need exercise motivation? Get a pedometer and try to walk 10,000 to 12,000 steps per day. This may also help you maintain your weight. With a pedometer, you get instant feedback and credit for all you do, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
2. Build a strong support system
Research suggests that having a strong support network like being married, having someone you can talk to and trust, or belonging to organisations or a religion can reduce your stress level and your risk of heart disease. If you already have heart disease, this same network can help reduce your risk of a heart attack. Having at least one person you can rely on takes a heavy burden off you and provides comfort. A strong support system helps you take better care of yourself, too. Research shows that a lack of social support increases the chance of engaging in unhealthy behaviors like smoking, eating a high-fat diet, and drinking too much alcohol.
3. Seek treatment for constant depression or anxiety
Depression and anxiety can increase your risk of dying from heart disease if you already have it. Research suggests that long-term anxiety or emotional stress can increase the risk of sudden cardiac death. To reduce your anxiety level, try activities that reduce stress like yoga, walking meditation, traditional meditation, guided imagery, or other methods. Look for classes in your area. Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine can increase feelings of anxiety and increase your stress and blood pressure. Cutting back or quitting these substances may help decrease your anxiety and stress. Talk with your provider if you have feelings of depression or anxiety and ask about medicines that can help.
4. Reduce stress from work
Studies show having a demanding job that offers you few opportunities to make decisions or provides little reward can increase your risk for heart disease. Stress at work becomes even more of a problem when you don’t have a strong support system or you have long-term anxiety. If you can’t find a different position within your company, do what you can to gain control over your environment. Try to take some time every day away from work. Do something that is relaxing and that you enjoy. It may be reading, walking, or deep breathing. Your employer may offer an employee assistance program (EAP) to help you manage stress and anxiety. A counselor can help recommend strategies to help you lower your work-related stress.
5. Stay connected
It is important to stay in a socially connected group. With lockdown imposed and travel restrictions, many people got struck away from near and dear ones immensely contributed to a mental health hazard. The Internet and other gadgets can help to remain in a closed loop with family and friends. Sharing jokes, events, and daily life activities help in reducing the burden of stress. Developing a passion through group classes like music, and drawing can immensely help. Many people have utilized internet connectivity to restart their businesses while sitting at home. Internet classes, working from home, and ordering food online all have worked.
If you think you are at an increased risk for heart disease because of stress in your life, talk with your healthcare provider. He or she may recommend counseling, classes or other programs to help you lower your stress level and your risk for heart disease.