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What role does stress play in the risk of heart attack?

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You may have heard the expression “you shouldn’t worry so much, you’ll give yourself a heart attack!” at some point in your life. If you are an anxious person, you’ve probably heard it more than once. While usually said jokingly, phrase is actually fairly accurate, if a bit of an exaggeration.

Stress, anxiety and worry have all been found to have a negative impact on the body and on overall health. Stress has even been linked to blood clots; specifically that high stress levels can effectively change the way blood clots. This is especially important when looking at heart attacks.

Oftentimes, when discussing preventative measures one can take to protect against heart attacks, people dismiss advice pertaining to stress. The reasoning behind this dismissal is simple; telling a person to be less stressed is futile. Individuals who carry the most stress often grow agitated at the idea that they are somehow responsible for their stress levels. To tell someone to ‘be less stressed’ is unhelpful at best, and counterproductive at worst. Instead, we should work to understand why stress contributes to the risk of heart attacks, what impact stress has on the body and ways we can do the impossible and become less high strung.

The why is simple enough. Stress has been shown to raise your blood pressure. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, significantly increases the odds of a heart attack. Stress also contributes to heart attacks in a more roundabout fashion. Oftentimes when an individual is feeling stressed, they may drink more alcohol, or smoke more cigarettes, than they would otherwise. In addition to raising blood pressure, these activities have also been shown to be damaging to the walls of the arteries.

The impact stress has on the body is also fairly straightforward, if a bit more far reaching. Stress has been shown to contribute to any number of conditions, ranging from ulcers to headaches to indigestion. Additionally, stress may leave a person feeling mentally drained, irritable and forgetful. When a person is feeling stressed out and anxious, the body responds with adrenaline. This rush of adrenaline is one of the reasons that stress has been known to disrupt, and even prevent, proper sleep. Adrenaline also increases your heart rate and blood pressure. This response may be fairly harmless if provoked every once in a while, but for people who experience chronic stress, this can be a near constant state.

While you may not be able to quit stress like you would cigarettes, there are steps you can take. Exercise has been found to be an excellent outlet for stress and can also help to get rid of excess nervous energy that may be preventing you from sleeping. Positive thinking may sound strange, but in reality it is remarkably effective in dealing with stress. Giving yourself a mental thumbs up can help you not only relieve existing stress, but prevent future stressful situations. Another helpful tip is to find a block of time each day to relax. This may sound a bit vague, but it doesn’t have to be an hour long meditation on the beach. Just taking a 5 minute break from your day to focus on you, or the good, or nothing at all can be extraordinarily beneficial in stress relief.

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