n the popular group the typical image of someone who, extremely stressed, ends up suffering all kinds of medical conditions, such as hair loss, gastrointestinal problems and, also, a heart attack is very well established.
Although the relationship between stressful situations and heart problems has always been something that has been taken for granted, it has not been until relatively recently that stress has been incorporated as a risk factor for heart disease.
In this article we will see how stress affects the heart , explaining the importance of the phases of evolution of a stressful response in addition to commenting on some strategies to achieve a healthier heart.
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How does stress affect the heart?
Stress is an emotion that is present throughout the world at some time in their lives. Like any emotion, it implies a series of consequences depending on its degree of appearance, intensity and type.
One of the most popular definitions of stress is that it is a fight or flight reaction to a threatening situation, although this is not quite correct. Today, we understand as stress to that physiological, psychological and behavioral response that a subject carries out to adjust and adapt to pressures , both internal and external, to which he has been subjected.
These pressures can be really threatening and imply a negative response both in the mind and in the body of the individual (distress). However, stress may also appear in a context beneficial to health, such as the performance of a high intensity sport (eustress).
As already mentioned, stress implies a physiological response, which can be observed by seeing the hormonal changes that the individual presents . The agency stands on guard and prepares to face a situation that must be overcome to ensure its survival. There are a whole series of changes at the circulatory level. The levels of glucose, red blood cells, leukocytes and platelets rise in the bloodstream.
The body focuses its energies on the brain, heart and muscles, to the detriment of the rest of the organs. The heart rate is increased, the muscles contract increasing for a short period of time the strength of the individual, the breathing is accelerated, the coronary vessels and also the skeletal muscles are dilated while the vessels related to the digestive system contract. The bladder relaxes, the rectum contracts, the pupils dilate and the body begins to sweat.
Although stress has been linked to heart problems since time immemorial, it has not been until relatively recently that stress has been included as a factor in cardiovascular disease. Cardiopsychology is the branch of health sciences that is responsible for defining the relationship between psychosocial factors with the onset and rehabilitation of heart disease.
People who are more susceptible to presenting this emotion more frequently are also more likely to manifest cardiovascular problems, such as cerebral ischemia or stroke, angina pectoris and heart attack .
Blood pressure is triggered and malignant arrhythmias occur. There is a higher risk of thrombus, since platelets increase in blood and there is more coagulation. In turn, insulin efficiency decreases and low density lipoprotein levels also decrease, which is popularly known as good cholesterol. The blood becomes thicker and the arteries lose elasticity, accumulating harmful substances in their walls and hindering the passage of blood.
The sympathetic nervous system, if it remains active for a long time, begins to work inefficiently . This causes problems of electrical conduction towards the heart, contributing to the irregular shape of this can (arrhythmia). In the most severe cases, the arrhythmia can become the sudden stop of the heart, which would cause the death of the individual.
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Importance of stress phases
As already mentioned, not all stress is bad. On the contrary, it is an answer that guarantees the survival of the individual if it is in the right situation and at levels that are high functioning for the individual.
The problem comes when the body manifests this response for too long or with too high intensity in the face of a threat that, perhaps, is not for much.
That is why, to understand a little more thoroughly the difference between healthy stress and distress, we present the phases of this process, relating them to cardiovascular health.
1. First phase: alarm
The alarm is about the first phase that is given in response to a stressful event. It is here that the individual decides to opt for one of the following two strategies: fight or flight.
This phase implies a high energy consumption and is key for the individual to adapt to the new situation.
If the alarm phase is exceeded properly, it automatically goes to the recovery phase, inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic predominant, which restores the balance prior to the appearance of the stressful stimulus.
2. Second phase: resistance
If the first phase has not been successfully completed or the recovery has occurred, the resistance phase is entered.
The individual is still active and focuses his forces to deal with the threatening situation, which causes the energy reserves to gradually run out. On the other hand, the neuroendocrine system is subject to intense activity , causing it to become ineffective until it reaches the fault.
The reasons why stress manifests itself ineffectively may be related to being exposed to a very intense or chronic acute stressor.
It may also be due to the individual himself, who has a personality disorder, does not have efficient resources to cope with stress or has an organic disease that influences the neuroendocrine system.
3. Third phase: exhaustion
At this point, where the body has been under a lot of pressure, stress becomes a health problem , contributing to the appearance of both physical and psychological pathology.
How to prevent the effects of stress on the heart?
One of the fundamental factors to have a good quality of life is to present low levels of stress, in addition to having the necessary resources to know how to deal in a healthy way to situations that imply change or are threatening. Below you can see some strategies that contribute to reducing the harmful effects of stress on cardiovascular health.
1. Physical exercise
Sedentary people are more likely to suffer heart problems. This is not only because not exercising frequently implies health problems already in itself, but also people who do not perform physical activity often tend to feel more moody and irascible.
Thus, their cardiovascular risk is double, since they can develop medical conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure or hypercholesterolemia, involving greater pressure on the heart.
It is advisable to perform exercises in which large muscle groups are involved for long periods of time, such as swimming, cycling or aerobics.
Another fundamental key to good cardiovascular health is to control what you eat.
A balanced diet with appropriate amounts of carbohydrates, healthy fats, proteins, trace elements and vitamins, promotes the proper functioning of the cardiovascular system, as well as providing good emotional stability.
Fats and sugars can contribute to being in a bad mood , and therefore tend to be stressed. Foods that contain these nutrients should be consumed in moderation. The consumption of caffeinated beverages should also be reduced, especially cola and coffee, as well as alcoholic beverages and tobacco, since its components enhance the appearance of stress.
It should be said that not all caffeinated drinks are potentially stressful, since green tea favors the positive regulation of stress hormones.
3. Sleep well
Who sleeps badly is grumpy the next day and, of course, is more likely to put ‘the attack’ to the slightest. Try to sleep at least seven hours a day, since sleep helps to renew cells.
Not sleeping can cause the individual to be immersed in a cycle that feeds on each other , since it is increasingly stressed and, in turn, stress causes insomnia.
Techniques such as pilates, yoga, taichí or simple controlled breathing can have great benefits in reducing stress, calming not only the mind but also the heart.
With this type of techniques the heart rate is reduced , reducing the risk of heart problems such as heart attacks or irregular heartbeat. Blood pressure decreases, circulation and immune system improve.
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5. Professional help
In case you have serious problems to manage stress and you are already noticing symptoms of a possible heart problem, seeking professional help is never too much.
The doctor will ensure if there is a risk or not of suffering from heart disease, while going to the psychologist will contribute to acquiring strategies to deal adequately with the situations that cause stress.
In the event that stress is manifested too high because the person is very irascible, it is highly recommended to go to anger control courses.