Stressed out? Calm down – for your heart’s sake
Doesn’t it feel like life is moving faster every year? Increasingly, we’re pulled in different directions, trying to balance work, home, family and, perhaps, elder care. It’s often overwhelming.
It can also be hard on your heart – particularly at certain times of the week and year.
A study by researchers at Uppsala University and Umeå University in Sweden looked at more than 156,000 heart attack cases treated at Swedish hospitals over eight years. It showed a link between heart attacks and certain time periods, such as holidays or Mondays.
Led by John Wallert, a Ph.D. student at Uppsala University, the research showed that “compared to control days, the daily incidence rate of MI (myocardial infarction) was higher during the Winter Holidays, and on Mondays, whereas rates were lower during weekends and during the summer vacation in July. These periods coincide well with perceived high and low stress in society, respectively.”
The news was not surprising to Falmouth Hospital cardiologist John C. Hostetter, MD, FACC. A number of studies that relate heart attacks to surges in adrenaline or circadian rhythms (a daily 24-hour internal cycle that regulates sleep and wakefulness), he said.
“Heart attacks are more likely to occur in the early morning hours, whether that’s due to the stress of getting going in the morning or adrenal activity,” he said.
People experience more stress before heart attacks at certain times of day and during the holidays or catastrophes, such as the tsunami in Japan or the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., he added.
“Our fight or flight instinct increases heart rate and blood pressure, which is good in a crisis but can also affect health and lead to a higher risk of heart attack,” Dr. Hostetter explained. Stress also increases blood clotting, which contributes to heart attacks, he added.
Physical signs of stress that could indicate your heart is at risk include chest pain, heart pounding, shortness of breath, or palpitations.
Dr. Hostetter also noted a connection between depression and anger, and some personality types that have been linked to a higher chance of heart attack.
“Type A, hard-driving and high achieving and competitive personality types are slightly more likely to have heart attacks, as are people with more anger, hostility and cynicism,” he said.
Simple Steps to Reduce Stress
“Stressful events don’t condemn you to a heart attack,” Dr. Hostetter said. “The single most important thing (to help prevent a heart attack) is exercise. It lowers blood pressure, drops bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol, and helps you lose weight.”
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes a week – four to five days a week of 30-40 minutes of moderate exercise. You can even break it up into 10- or 15-minute segments. Simple activities like walking your dog, taking the stairs, or returning phone calls while you walk, all count. Of course, the more you exercise, the better for your overall health.
Exercise doesn’t have to be vigorous or painful, Dr. Hostetter noted.
“A moderate walk, or, if you have joint pain, water aerobics, or using an elliptical or stationary bike,” are all beneficial, he said.
Good habits improve our health at all times, but especially in times of stress. Dr. Hostetter recommends these simple steps to help reduce stress:
- Get sufficient sleep – try to get seven to eight hours of sleep, even when busy.
- Exercise on a regular basis.
- Stay socially engaged with family and friends.
- Do the things you love: Make time for hobbies, reading, music, volunteering.
If you constantly feel pulled in different directions, overwhelmed, or out of control, “simplify, focus on important things in life rather than quantity,” he said.