Like it or not, stress has become a part of our culture. Americans are working more, taking fewer vacations, and having almost no quiet, contemplative time. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association finds that money and work are consistently among the top sources of stress for people, along with concerns about the state of our nation, the current political climate, crime and violence.
Whatever the cause of your stress, not dealing with it can have serious implications for your health. When you’re stressed, your body produces a surge of hormones meant to help you deal with the threat causing your stress - to fight against it or to take flight to get away from the stress. Those hormones, including the so-called stress hormone Cortisol, cause your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to constrict, temporarily increasing your blood pressure.
“Your body was designed to run from lions and tigers,” says Deborah Blazey-Martin, MD, MPH, Chief of Internal Medicine and Adult Primary Care at Tufts Medical Center. “That’s different than having your boss yell at you. You can’t run away from the boss, so you sit still while your heart is pounding and you’re not able to expend any of that energy."
Prolonged stress and release of stress-related hormones can result in serious damage to your cardiovascular system, leading to hypertension and potentially deadly heart attack or stroke.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one third of American adults have hypertension. That’s 75 million people in the US. A study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine finds only about half (54%) have their high blood pressure under control.
“A lot of the habits we develop that make us feel better in the moment are not good for us,” notes Dr. Blazey-Martin.
Coping mechanisms such as drinking alcohol, smoking, and eating unhealthy foods only exacerbate the problem, resulting in further damage to blood vessels and putting yourself at increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
Instead, Dr. Blazey-Martin suggests dealing with stress in healthier ways like:
- Increasing the amount of exercise you get
- Eating lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and foods that are low in sodium
- Getting a good night’s sleep
- Developing a social support system and
- Giving yourself some quiet time to meditate or just sit quietly.
Any of these methods can make a big difference in your stress levels.
“I find most often for people who have stress and high blood pressure, it’s just a willingness to start dealing with it that helps,” says Dr. Blazey-Martin. “When things get better and less stressful, their blood pressure comes back down.”