Stress can damage your heart health – what can you do?

The Heart and Stroke Foundation helps Canadians learn to live healthier lives

Stress is a part of life for just about everyone. Sometimes it is not easy to recognize stress because we are caught up in the flow of life. The things in your life that cause you stress are called stressors.

Recognizing and handling stress

Often, stressors are things you cannot control. These could be events (like losing a job) or conditions in your life (like not getting along with a family member). Your responses to these stressors are your stress reactions. These are different for all of us. For example, if you hate your job, losing it can make you feel free. For someone else, losing a job may be terrible.

Although stress happens first in the mind, it has strong effects on the body. Stress can damage your heart health. Sudden intense stress increases the short-term risk of heart attack. Too much stress over a long time (months to years) is called chronic stress. It can also increase the risk of coronary artery disease.

Recognizing your stress reactions

Everyone has his or her own individual stress reactions. Think for a moment about when you are stressed out or upset. What happens to you?

• Thoughts:

Do you have trouble concentrating?

Do your thoughts race, or freeze up?

Do you start to think “the worst”?

Are you more likely to see yourself, your future or other people negatively?

• Emotions:

Does stress lead you to have angry, anxious or sad feelings?

• Body:

How do you feel physically?

What happens to your breathing?

Are your muscles tighter?

Does that create pain anywhere, like headache, back or jaw pain?

Does it make you tired?

What happens to your sleeping patterns?

How does your stomach feel?

Do you sweat, have dry mouth, diarrhea or constipation?

What happens to your heart rate?

If you measured your blood pressure, what would you see?

Are you aware of anything else physical?

• Behaviour and actions:

How do your habits and behaviours change?

Do you eat more or have more junk food and sugary drinks?

Do you stop exercising? Do you start smoking? Drink more alcohol, use prescription or non-prescription drugs?

Do you become nervous or keep to yourself?

Is there anything else you notice?

All these signs point to something real that you can feel: your mind and body are connected. Stress happens first in the mind, but has effects all through the body, including, of course, the heart and circulatory system.

How can I manage stress?

It may be possible to change or remove the stressor – for example, you may be able to change your job, your work schedule, avoid difficult people or unpleasant situations.

But in many cases removing the stressor is not possible. In this situation, you need to change your stress reaction. Here are some strategies to help you:

• Mental responses: You cannot control all parts of your life, but you can control your response to stress and keep a positive attitude. Identify your “thought habits” that can make stress worse (most of us have a least one). Here are a few examples:

• Deciding right away that it is going to be really bad, without even looking closely at the facts

Looking only at the bad parts and not seeing the good

Worrying about problems that are really not yours.

• Emotional responses: Figure out your emotional reactions to stress and talk about them.

• Physical responses: Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises.

• Behavioural responses: Decide what you can change about the stressor – for example, you may be able to change your job, your work schedule, avoid difficult people or unpleasant situations. Take action and do it. Keep up your healthy habits. Spend time with friends and family.

What else can I do to have less stress in my life?

• Take care of your health and lifestyle.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation is a national organization led and supported by a force of more than 130,000 volunteers. It was founded in 1952 and is a leading funder of life-saving research, which has led to breakthroughs such as heart transplant surgery and a revolutionary stroke treatment that cuts the death rate by 50 per cent.

Heart & Stroke empowers Canadians to live healthier lives — from preventing and controlling high blood pressure to getting more physical activity. They also fight for change that will create better health for all, such as reducing salt in the food supply and improving access to stroke rehabilitation.

Heart & Stroke’s Mission statement is, “We envision healthy lives free of heart disease and stroke. Together we will make it happen.”

Learn more by going to: or check out their Facebook page at: Heart & Stroke.

– Source: The Heart and Stroke Foundation

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