Despite the many advantages of today’s technological progress, chronic stress persists as a major problem. Stress is not only uncomfortable, it can cause major damage to the circulatory and immune systems, leading to hypertension, arrhythmias, increased coagulation, and atherosclerosis.
Stress also exacerbates coronary heart disease (CHD), myocardial infarction (MI), and heart failure. Various stressors have been found to raise the risk of heart disease and even increased mortality due to heart disease—especially chronic work-related stress, marital strain, bereavement, and social isolation. Acute emotional stress may trigger myocardial infarction and a phenomenon known as stress myocarditis.
Stress, by virtue of its effects on adrenaline release, triggers myocardial ischemia, promotes arrhythmogenesis, stimulates platelet function, and increases blood viscosity. In some individuals, the intrinsic effects of stress include exaggerated heart rates and blood pressure responses. Emotions that often come with stress, namely anger, hostility, anxiety, and depression, bring a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cardiac events, and — in those with heart disease — poor prognosis.
Depression is related to greater risk for developing coronary heart disease (CHD), poor prognosis in CHD, and higher mortality in those with CHD. It is also associated with arrhythmias, higher risk of acute coronary syndrome, and poor prognosis after myocardial infarction.
Those who are depressed are less likely to make lifestyle changes important for heart health. Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety may also affect lipid metabolism. Twenty percent of individuals who have cardiovascular disease or a previous history of MI have been found to have major depressive disorder (MDD). Psychosocial stressors can be both a cause and a consequence of cardiovascular disease events. Stress management might reduce future cardiac events in patients with cardiovascular disease.
Unless medications are required, patients can often make lifestyle changes that markedly decrease chronic stress. Some recommended strategies include:
- exercising on a regular basis.
- meditating for one or two 20- to 30-minute sessions a day. Studies show meditation can have lasting effects on blood pressure and heart rate.
- taking a vacation or a long weekend off.
- writing about stressful events.
- participating in a support group.
- regularly doing deep breathing exercises.
- using progressive muscle relaxation, which reduces muscle tension by relaxing individual muscle groups.
- practicing yoga, tai chi, or qi gong, all forms of exercise and meditation that are effective in reducing stress.
- spending more time outdoors.
- disconnecting from electronics and social media.
- listening to soothing music or silence.
- engaging in creative endeavors or hobbies.