Chronic stress is unhealthy for your heart.
This is true — even for people without any pre-existing conditions, such as high blood pressure (hypertension), as well as for younger people.
That’s according to a new study published by the American Heart Association.
In the study, researchers looked at stress levels across 13 years (2005-2018) in 412 people (aged 48 to 87) without hypertension.
Researchers tested urinary stress levels by measuring the hormones created in the body to deal with stress: cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), dopamine, and norepinephrine.
The doubling levels of cortisol alone — but not norepinephrine, epinephrine or dopamine — was associated with a 90 percent higher risk of having a cardiovascular event.
Cortisol is the stress hormone that drives your reactions to danger or threat. When the issue has passed, your cortisol is supposed to drop again. This is what lets your body and brain know all is safe.
Norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine all work together to regulate the autonomic nervous system and control involuntary body functions, like your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.
Chronic stress disrupts this involuntary ebb and flow. That can result in cortisol no longer dropping back down, because the threat never feels over.
As a result, heart health could be compromised without a person really realizing it.
The obvious answer is to reduce stress, right?
Well, yes and no, according to the experts.
“Of course, we know all those stock, physically oriented methods of reducing stress management, like breathing techniques, minding your eating habits, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising,” said Therese Rosenblatt, PhD, the author of “How Are You: Connection in a Virtual Age – A Therapist, a Pandemic, and Stories about Coping with Life.”
“All of these practices are helpful, but when you are in the grip of that extreme, gnawing anxiety that makes life miserable, it can be hard to even initiate those behaviors,” she explained to Healthline.
According to Akua K. Boateng, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist, stress reduction is all about minimizing your body’s need to manage stressors beyond its capacity.
“There will be stressors in the world, yet when we talk about stress reduction, it comes down to attempting to not personalize all of the stressors at the same time,” Boateng told Healthline.
The bottom line is to take the stressors in doses and know when you need to sideline processing others, she said.
Boateng’s tips for managing stress:
“Nothing manages stress better than actively doing something about it,” Rosenblatt said.
However, experts warn that, at a certain point, trying to reduce stress can become counterproductive.
“Stress reduction should relieve the energy within the body, not add to it,” Boateng said. “There are times when a small addition of stress can be beneficial (i.e., talking in therapy) but overall you should feel better afterward.”
Boateng’s signs that stress relief is doing more harm than good:
“You can’t just will away stress and anxiety,” Rosenblatt said.
“Remember that it comes from somewhere. That somewhere may be an external threat, like COVID-19, in which case at least a good deal of that stress is absolutely real,” she added.
In dealing with stress, Rosenblatt said it’s best to stay flexible, due to the current climate.
“Decisions we make today, including our personal, social, and work habits, may have to change tomorrow,” she said. “We must accept what we cannot control and direct our energies toward the things we can control. If we assume the mindset that even the near future is unpredictable, we will be better prepared.”
“Or it may come from some internal, more personal or idiosyncratic source, in which case the stress is real to you, and you still have to deal with it,” Rosenblatt noted. “Understanding this enemy is way more effective than fighting it.”
“Remember that our minds and bodies were designed to give us stress signals when we need to pay attention to a real or perceived threat,” she advised. “You may find that, once you accept that you are stressed and you try to identify what exactly it is about it that is getting to you, you will be able to make a plan, either to take action or simply to go easy on yourself.”