If you’ve ever heard someone say, “my heart is breaking,” you know there’s an underlying stressful situation. While their heart might not actually be breaking, there is some truth to this expression. Sometimes stress can be a good thing, helping us push ourselves to reach new goals. But too much stress can have consequences that harm our health, including our heart.

What is stress?

What one person considers a stressful situation is be nothing to someone else. So how can we tell if we’re experiencing stress?

The truth is that everyone experiences stress to some degree. Stress is your mind and body’s reaction to anything that requires attention or action. Your body might react to this stressor physically, emotionally, or psychologically. When a stressor presents itself suddenly, our body goes into a fight-or-flight response and releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.

Types of stress

Stress can vary depending on the individual and the situation. There are two types of stress –  acute and chronic.

Acute stress is a short-term stress that can be experienced daily and passes quickly. Some examples that of acute stress are a disagreement with your boss, sitting in traffic, or a project you must work on.

On the other hand, chronic stress is more persistent and can last from weeks to months. This type of stress is typically brought on by long-term stressors such as constant fighting in a relationship, financial burdens, or feeling burned out at work.

The link between stress and heart health:

One way stress can affect heart health is through the hormones released. If you’re suffering from chronic stress and your body is consistently releasing adrenaline and cortisol, this can raise your blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar- all risk factors for heart disease.

Chronic stress can also lead to harmful behaviors such as:

  • Changes in diet, i.e. overeating or unhealthy diet patterns
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Excess alcohol intake
  • Smoking
  • Changes in sleep patterns

In turn, these behaviors indirectly put us at risk of developing heart disease by causing:

  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High cholesterol and obesity
  • Irregular heart rate
  • High cortisol levels

How can stress be managed?

Stress is a part of life, but it can be managed before it develops into chronic stress. “Although we can’t escape from the daily stressors in life, with the right attitude and optimism we can make small changes that will help us overcome the hurdles in life,” says Dr. Luis Gruberg, Mather Hospital’s Director of the Cardiovascular Cath Lab. Figuring out which stressors are triggering you is the first step to determine the approach you need to take to manage them. Some changes that can be made to manage stress include:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Having a consistent sleep schedule
  • A healthy diet
  • Practicing mindfulness (relaxation techniques, meditation or yoga)
  • Maintaining a positive attitude