The stress of living through a global pandemic, an explosive political climate, environmental disasters and everything in between can put serious pressure on your heart.
If left unchecked, chronic stress can cause damage to your body, potentially leading to heart attacks, high blood pressure and other severe conditions.
There’s no cure-all for chronic stress, but experts say it can be improved by focusing on what you can control in your life, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and spending time with loved ones or on calming activities,
“What’s going on now, there’s no respite from it,” said Dr. Cheryl Carmin, director of behavioral cardiology at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, “It has unfortunately become a way of life and a source of stress.”
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Politics, pandemic have people stressed out
As the world’s problems grow, stress and feelings of helplessness may grow with it.
Carmin said she and other practicing psychologists have noticed the effects of current events on their patient’s mental and physical health.
Politics, the pandemic and the constant struggle for diversity and equality in America have been unavoidable, she said, but these issues affect each person differently.
“I have patients tell me all the time that all of those lovely family dinners that they used to have, have now been infiltrated by politics.” Carmin said.
Current issues, though short-lived in the grand scheme of a person’s life, can still be extremely stressful, she said.
Stress in response to current events has always existed, but the medical community has given the issue more attention in recent years, said Dr. Nahush Mokadam, division director of cardiac surgery at the OSU Wexner Medical Center and board president of the American Heart Association’s central Ohio chapter.
“I don’t think our stressors today are specifically higher than they were 20 years ago, or even, frankly, 100 years ago when we were in the middle of World War I,” Mokadam said. “… I think we’re more aware of it. We acknowledge it more. We look for it more. We try to treat it more aggressively.”
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Effects of long-term stress on your heart
In small amounts, stress is healthy for the body and the mind, said Dr. Kevin Stiver, an interventional cardiologist with OhioHealth. During these brief periods, the body releases chemicals such as adrenaline and dopamine.
These chemicals are responsible for the fight-or-flight response in the body, Stiver said, where people often experience adrenaline rushes, eye dilation or goosebumps. They also impact your heart.
Long-term or chronic stress can exacerbate the impact, and each person’s body reacts to stress differently, Mokadam said. For example, some people get high blood pressure due to chronic stress, raising the risk of heart attacks or strokes, he said. Others may have problems with high blood sugar, which could result in diabetes.
“It’s really not necessarily, ‘What does high stress cause?’ It’s how your body responds to it,” Mokadam said. “And that’s probably going to determine what the long-term effects of chronic stress are.”
Losing sleep, not exercising, forgetting daily medication, picking up smoking or turning to drugs and alcohol as a reaction to stress can put someone at a greater risk for heart and health problems, Stiver said.
“Long-term stress definitely does take a toll on the heart and the mind in terms of heart attacks and strokes,” he said.
Fighting helplessness, managing stress
Carmin said that after 9/11 every minute of the news featured videos of the disaster and interviews with survivors. To deal with her own stress, she took a break from the constant stream of media about the tragedy.
“It was 24/7,” she said. “People were becoming traumatized from listening to the news.”
Sometimes the answer to stress about the state of the world can be as easy as turning off the TV, logging off social media and having a quiet moment alone to focus on yourself, Carmin said. Exercise, reading, meditation or spending time with loved ones and pets are simple yet effective ways to alleviate stress.
“I often encourage people to think about what you enjoy doing. What makes you happy? And can you focus on that and do those things?” Carmin said. “Who haven’t you talked to in a while?”
Carmin said she encourages patients to think about their passions and to reflect on differences they can make in their own lives to fight feelings of helplessness in the face of disaster such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We don’t have as much control as we might like, nor are we necessarily going to be able to change everybody’s opinion on some of the topics to be consistent with ours,” she said. “You can’t change the world, but you can change your piece of it.”
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For those concerned about their heart health, Stiver recommends carving out time each day for a healthy activity such as walking or yoga and getting six to eight hours of sleep each night. A quality diet and lifestyle tend to slip in times of stress, and drinking less alcohol, eating less fast food or smoking less cigarettes will benefit overall health.
Being mindful of your physical health is good way to start decreasing the effects of stress, he said.
“Stress is sometimes the easiest thing to point a finger at for a cause, but the hardest thing we have to treat,” Stiver added.
Sometimes coping mechanisms are not enough to keep stress at bay, and the physical and mental symptoms of stress can become more frequent and painful, Carmin said. Those who experience intense feelings of unhappiness or anxiety, or who notice that their stress has disrupted their daily life and has become unmanageable should seek professional help.
She encourages people to reach out to a general practitioner or a psychologist. Some patients also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy or medication to treat anxiety.
“We’ve always had stress, but this is such a different kind of stress [these days],” Stiver said. “You just don’t have to do this on your own.”