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Find Out How Stress Affects Your Heart Health!

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Sumit Saxena who works as a manager in an MNC was hospitalized last week as he suffered a major heart attack. This incident not only shocked his family but friends and family as well. People close to him failed to believe that Sumit suffered a heart attack. He was the last person they thought who land in the hospital for a heart trouble. In fact, his personality and history did not fit the profile of a typical heart patient. He was 41, slim and physically fit, he never smoked and was never hospitalised for any major health problem till date. Just around a year back, he got an executive health check-up done and was given a clean chit by his doctor.

So after he was discharged and his family and friends started to ask questions and probed further about his lifestyle and any recent changes in his health condition, he revealed that he was under a lot of stress from few months. His current job, which he joined only a year back, involves erratic work hours. Most often than not, he ends up working for 15 – 16 hours a day only to meet the deadline. This lead to excessive stress both physically and mentally which slowly started to take a toll on his health and eventually landed him in a hospital with a heart attack. So was it stress that caused heart attack in Sumit? 

Well, here is what Dr. Santosh Kumar Dora, senior cardiologist, Asian Heart Institute, Mumbai has to say about the role of stress on heart health.

Is stress BAD for the heart?

Stress has become an integral part of our day-to-day lives. Studies[1] reveal that people experience stress at all stages of life. However, work-related stress is currently the much-talked about. This is because, most of the adults spend more than half of their waking hours at work. The workplace is an important setting to promote health and well-being but thanks to the rat-race and the ability to outdo and beat the competition, most people do not take their health seriously. This in the long run can not only affect you physically and mentally but also takes a toll on the key organs of the body including the heart.

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Recent studies[2] have claimed that there is a marked increase in the stress level in the younger generation. There is a growing evidence on the relation between heart health and psychosocial factors such as job stress, relationship problems, social isolation, etc. Experts suggest that long term stress can lead to higher incidence of unhealthy lifestyle and also make it difficult to treat chronic health problems.

People who suffer from long-term work-related stress are at risk of sedentary lifestyle, reduced exercise, eating unhealthy lifestyle, smoking and alcohol which can lead to obesity. This if left uncontrolled, can increase the risk of health conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol levels and diabetes. These conditions act as risk factors for coronary heart disease. Moreover, when stressed, a person tends to overeat and fall prey to other unhealthy habits. Also, there are numerous hormonal changes that happen in the body when you are stressed. All these factors can cause a cumulative effect on the heart. 

Long-term stress can expose your body to unhealthy, persistently high levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can be detrimental for the heart. On the other hand, acute stress can cause a sudden increase in blood pressure, which can cause plaque rupture or formation of blood clots, leading to a heart attack.

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How To Fight Stress For A Healthy Heart?

According to Dr. Santosh Kumar Dora, everyone of us is exposed to stress. However, the intensity of stress and how a person reacts to it varies from one person to another. More than the stress, it is the response to stress that determines its impact on your heart and health and your risk of health problems. For example, some people react to stress with anger, anxiety, fear, moodiness and guilt, which can make things worse for them; whereas some take it easy and come up with a coping mechanism to ease stress.

When you are exposed to chronic stress, your body gives warning signals that something is wrong and you need to slow down. These signals could be physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral symptoms which should not be ignored. If you ignore these symptoms and continue to being stressed without giving a break to your mind and body, then you are likely to develop health problems. Unlike other risk factors for heart disease, it is not possible to measure stress in a precise way.

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Managing stress is not only good for the heart but for overall health. While it is not possible to lead a stress-free life, what is doable is to make simple changes in your lifestyle to reduce the harmful effects of stress on the heart.

Spend quality time with your family and friends as it acts as a great stress buster. Try to keep your professional and personal life difference and not bring office stress home. Most often than not, try to take family holidays and mini-vacations to enjoy time with your loved ones. Choose a hobby as it helps to ease stress and divert your mind into something creative. Learning a new hobby keeps your mind occupied and makes you happy. Join a singing, painting, music, photography, cooking or swimming class. You can even opt for activities such as walking, jogging, cycling, yoga or dancing.

Remember your health is your priority, so stay away from stress. Excessive work stress can ruin your health. If you feel stressed or are not happy at work, talk to a psychotherapist. Do not get weighed down by stress or ignore it as it can lead to severe health complications such as heart attack and even depression.

(The article is reviewed by Dr. Swati Mishra, Medical Editor)

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References:

1. Li J, Loerbroks A, Bosma H, Angerer P. Work stress and cardiovascular disease: a life course perspective. J Occup Health. 2016 May 25;58(2):216-9.

2. Lecca LI, Campagna M, Portoghese I, et al. Work Related Stress, Well-Being and Cardiovascular Risk among Flight Logistic Workers: An Observational Study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Sep 7;15(9).

3. Kivimäki M, Kawachi I. Work Stress as a Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease. Curr Cardiol Rep. 2015 Sep;17(9):630.

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