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Stress and Your Heart Health

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It's 5 a.m. and the alarm clock jars you back into the land of the living after what surely must have been only 15 minutes of sleep, tops. It was actually four and a half hours but who’s keeping score?

An icy shower follows as you try to force your body awake and to respond to your commands, because your limbs are weary beyond reason and you have that hit-by-a-truck feeling.

The next hour is a blur as you dress children, fix breakfast, wash dishes, pack lunches, throw last night’s laundry into the dryer and start another load, take a deep breath, sign permission slips, referee fights, wake your husband with a cup of coffee and a smile -- well, maybe a grimace -- as you head out the door to finally “start” the day.

It’s your week for the carpool -- lucky you -- so you pick up and drop off 27 children – okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration but to your pounding head it sounded like 27 children -- at various schools.

Your daughter forgot her backpack and came running back to the car to get it. Being the wicked mother that you are, you waited for her and held up the line, much to the displeasure of the school crossing guard police who share their opinion with you.

You drop off your husband’s suits at the dry cleaners, and after a 45-minute commute in the traffic jam from hell, you finally arrive at work. Your boss came in early and is in a bad mood and there’s already a pile of work -- all high priority -- waiting in your inbox.

Your headache is now rivaling a migraine of massive proportions but because you don’t have time to indulge yourself with a minor thing like pain -- severe enough to make you want to cut own your head off -- to feel better, you grab a cup of coffee, an emergency soda and a couple of donuts, well -- make that three donuts, for breakfast – after all, you’re going to need the caffeine and sugar boost just to make it through the morning.

You sigh, rub your temples, and pop a double dose of aspirin as the computer screen comes to life. You’ve been up for four hours, you’re exhausted -- and the “work” day is just beginning. You are stressed!

Granted, while not every morning is quite so colorful or frantic as the one described, I suspect that many women can relate to at least portions of the narrative. The truth is that in today’s fast-paced world, whether you are a stay at home mom or work outside the home, most women today do not live a June Cleaver life.

Our lives are filled with stress that comes at us from different directions -- job, home life, family, friends, organizational commitments, soccer games, dance lessons -- just to name a few. Show me a woman with no stress in her life and I’ll show you a woman who is probably either not living or comatose!

Stress causes your body to release adrenaline, causing unhealthy increases in your blood pressure levels, breathing, and heart rate. Sometimes, this is referred to as the fight-or-flight syndrome.

In other words, stress tells your body that it’s either time to put on those red-high-heeled shoes and do some serious stomping on the offending individuals, or to break out those Reeboks and head for the hills as fast as your little feet will carry you.

Unfortunately, neither response is generally an appropriate way to handle our day-to-day stress.

While stress can be transitory, many live with long-term chronic stress situations. In addition to making our daily lives generally unpleasant, all this stress adds up and starts a chain reaction that takes a toll on our heart health.

It’s believed that chronic stress contributes to the development of coronary artery disease or heart disease. The damage is caused by the effect of the increased rates in high blood pressure and heart rate.

Chronic stress also impacts your heart health in some ways that are not quite as obvious. For example, remember the extra caffeine and donuts our make-believe mom ate for breakfast? It’s not uncommon to deal with stressful situations by compensating with too much food -- or the wrong kinds of food -- which can lead to obesity.

Obesity increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Diabetes is also an independent risk factor for heart disease. Other common ways of dealing with stress include caffeine or alcohol consumption, as well as increased smoking, which may increase your risk of heart disease.

Loss of sleep is a common side effect of stress, which of course, leaves you fatigued, and looking for ways to boost your energy. Stress can also leave those with Type A personalities, who are already at an increased risk of heart disease, in overdrive.

Stress doesn’t just limit its effects to your heart. It weakens your immune system, causes headaches, stomach aches, backaches, muscle aches, depression, anger, irritation and much more.

If, like for so many of us, aspects of your life are out of control and under stress, look for ways to manage and limit the stress in your life. Increasing your physical activity levels, improving relationships or adding relaxation techniques or meditation to your daily routine can help.

It’s also important to add something to your life that gives you pleasure, whether that’s a 15-minute bubble bath, dancing barefoot in the rain, listening to classical music, painting, playing guitar, gardening or cooking.

Engaging in these simple little pleasures do much to offset the effects and impact of stress. The benefits of controlling and managing stress will not only improve your daily quality of life, but will lessen your risk of heart disease as well.


The Healthy Heart Handbook for Women: Other Facts That Affect Heart Disease, Stress and Depression. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. 2011. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/educational/hearttruth/downloads/html/hhh/stress-and-depression.htm

FAQs About Stress. American Heart Association. 05 May 2011.

How Does Stress Affect You? American Heart Association. 20 Sept 2011.

Reviewed October 3, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Malu Banuelos

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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