A study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine has indicated that once anxiety and depression sets in, you’ve unleashed the possibility that you’ll develop heart disease in the future.
We all know some of the factors that contribute to heart disease – primarily genetics and our poor food consumption (or lack of healthy foods in our diets). But most people never consider sheer stress and anxiety as a source of actual damage to their body’s heart.
The Connection Between Disease and Depression
The study – carried out at the School of Population Health of the University of Queensland in Australia, was focused on women over 40 who had experienced stress but who had no sign of heart disease. Over time, their depression and anxiety seems to be a factor in the development of heart disease.
It was a 15-year look at how heart disease developed in these women. Researchers were looking for both depression and anxiety combined as a contributing factor.
What they found was that in the women who were newly diagnosed with heart disease during the study, they were more likely to have both depression and anxiety.
What scientists concluded is that when you have these types of mental health issues to fight in your life, your nervous system can’t perform accurately. And when you’re depressed, you tend to lack physical activity, engage in unhealthy food, cigarette and alcohol addictions, and neglect your overall well being.
Another 10-year study by the Heart Foundation found that heart attacks can occur from major life traumas, such as the death of someone you love, disasters of nature like hurricanes, tornadoes, etc., and domestic terror attacks.
The study also found that chronic stress – especially in women over the age of 45 – contributed to more heart problems as well. But that doesn’t let men off the hook, though.
No study to date has singled out stress as the sole determining factor for having heart disease, but there’s no mistaking the fact that it can contribute to it. It could be because depression and anxiety cause poor self-care behaviors.
One thing doctors know is that a large number of patients’ visits to the doctor are due to chronic stress. It can take a toll on your body, causing fatigue, panic attacks, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and more.
What happens when you get stressed is that your body experiences a fight or flight reaction. Your adrenaline gets pumping and you tense up. Your heart rate soars. Fat gets released into your blood because it’s used to give you a jolt of energy. Even your blood clots easier.
This wouldn’t be a problem for your heart if it happened once in awhile, but for many individuals, depression and anxiety is a never-ending problem. Your heart needs rest and relaxation.
It shouldn’t always be battling increased blood pressure, a barrage of cholesterol, and rapid heart beat. What will happen is that your heart might start beating abnormally more often than not. Your arties can thicken, too – setting you up for a heart attack or stroke.
Gauging Your Stress Level for Heart Health
You may or may not have an issue where stress – in the form of depression and anxiety – is affecting your heart health. Some people have minor stress while others are mired in it and don’t even realize how bad it’s become.
Ask yourself if you’ve been going through a lot of traumatic, nerve-wracking or frustrating situations in the past year. That might include:
- Changing jobs, having stress in an existing one, or having no job
- Adding to your family either with a birth or marriage
- Losing a loved one or a good friend
- Long health issues
- Struggling in a relationship
- Continual stress like traffic
- Being sued
- Struggling with money
Think about how you’ve physically felt lately. Stress is evident in our minds, but sometimes we overlook the physical effect until it’s too late. If you’re burdened by an unhealthy amount of stress, you might notice a few common stress signs early on.
Your jaw might hurt in the morning. This is a sign you’re clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth at night. You might also suffer from headaches and feel stiff in your neck area.
As stress really takes a toll on your body, symptoms get more serious. You might have dizzy spells, insomnia, feelings of panic attacks where your heart is racing, you’re sweating and you feel nauseous.
Ways to Cope With High or Chronic Stress
If you make a decision that stress might be an issue for you, then you have to see if you’re capable of getting it under control so that your heart is protected and you’re not setting yourself up for a heart attack or stroke.
First, there are some things you don’t want to do when it comes to managing your stress. Don’t take the route of asking your doctor to let you pop a pill for your stress unless it’s a last option. Pills just mask a problem – they don’t help you learn to cope.
Don’t use food to help you get in a better mood. The comfort food that many people use to self medicate during stress only causes more problems for your health.
Never turn to cigarettes and alcohol (or drugs) to help ease your anxiety. None of these things assists you in building a healthier heart. They just do more damage to your body.
Exercise by itself helps your heart – but it also releases endorphins, which help your stress levels plummet back to a manageable level. You can get as little as 20 minutes of exercise a day to reap the benefits of exercise.
Practice good time management. Whether you’re rushing around because you’ve overscheduled yourself or you’ve procrastinated to a point where you’re now panicked, a lack of time is one of the top stressors most people list about their lives.
Implement good sleep hygiene. That means you’re protecting your heart by getting plenty of Zs at night. You can’t function properly and handle stress gracefully when you’re running on empty.
Just as not getting plenty of sleep can be a problem, it can also be a problem if you get too much sleep. That’s a sign of depression, so if you can’t get out of bed and face the day, it might be time to call the doctor and set up an appointment for professional help.
Eliminate any stress that you can. That might include:
- Tasks at your job that you can delegate
- After school activities
- Community commitments
- Chores that others can help with
- Toxic relationships that bring you down
- Drains on your financial stores
Start replacing bad habits with good habits. Things like nutrition may not sound like it affects stress levels (and in turn heart health), but it does. When you feel like your energy is drained because you’ve crashed from a sugar high, and you’re not tired – it makes you unable to handle stress as well.
Engage in specific stress relief measures. For some, it might be:
- Deep breathing
- Connect with friends by socializing
- Tai Chi
Learn how to say no to other peoples’ demands. You might have people from your personal life, from your child’s school, from your church, or from work trying to get you to take on more responsibilities. If you need less stress, don’t be afraid to say no.
If anger is your primary reaction, then you need to focus on anger management so that you can control your reactions to the daily stress that you undergo. And let go of any grudges you’ve been holding against other people because it only wears you down physically and emotionally.
Embracing a Positive Mindset
It’s been proven that optimists live longer than pessimists. That’s because those who look at life with a glad half empty are often suffering from heart sabotaging issues like depression and anxiety.
But it’s not as easy as flipping a switch and suddenly thinking everything is all rainbows and unicorns. In fact, you’re not supposed to wear rose-colored glasses and be fake about how great life is, either.
What you need to do is work on a mindset where you’re realistic about what life has given you and then tackle it with a positive attitude that you’re capable of working through any issues that arise.
There’s always going to be stress in your life. It’s unavoidable as a whole. But with the right attitude, you can meet situations head to head and handle them with ease.
Every day you need to reiterate to yourself that you’re capable of handling whatever arises. Stay level-headed about what’s going on. Don’t overreact and make a bigger deal out of something than it really is.
Take a deep breath and look at whatever’s happening and think logically about how you can make it better. Don’t let feelings of doom and gloom overrun your thoughts.
Chances are the worst-case scenario will never happen, and even if it did, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll recover from it. How can you get a better mindset that helps vaccinate you against stress and protect your heart?
Practice positive affirmations. This is when you vocally and mentally reaffirm to yourself that things are going to be okay. Some people start their day off this way and end it this way – or call on positive affirmations during times of crisis.
Smile. Research shows that smiling actually improves your stress handling abilities – but not just any smile will do. It needs to be a full smile where your eyes and the muscles around the mouth actually change shape.
Find ways to laugh a lot. Whether it’s through a funny show on TV or a date night out to a live comedy club, laughter can help people physically and emotionally. When you laugh, the lining of your blood vessels dilates and improves blood flow.
Finding ways to manage your stress won’t just ensure that your heart is protected. It’s going to give you a better quality of life, which will improve your relationships, too.