Stress Management and Heart Failure

Can managing stress prevent heart disease? According to researchers at McGill University in Montreal when stress is excessive, it can contribute to hypertension, asthma, ulcers and other medical conditions.1-2 When someone is under stress the body responds as if it is in danger, called the fight-or-flight stress response. This can cause an increase in hormone production and a release of adrenaline which speeds up the heart, causing a racing feeling, rapid breathing and a rush of energy.1-2 When stress occurs frequently or is prolonged it can result in negative effects.1

How does stress contribute to heart disease?

Stress can occur anywhere. It can show up at work or home, it can be caused by financial issues, be trauma-related or caused by becoming a long-term caregiver for a family member or close friend.2

Stress can present itself as psychological or physiological manifestations. It can weaken the immune system or exacerbate an existing health problem.2-3 Stress can impact certain behaviors that increase the risk for heart disease that can raise blood pressure, contribute to depression and other conditions that may make you feel socially isolated or cause you to stay home and be sedentary.1,3-4

Stress causes some people to indulge in certain behaviors like smoking, overeating and drinking too much alcohol, ignoring the basics of living a heart-healthy lifestyle.1-2 If you are already in heart failure, this can cause your condition to worsen. The impact of stress on behavior can increase blood pressure and damage blood vessels, essential to good circulation and overall mental and physical functioning.2

The physical response to stress varies by individual and often by the specific stressors. It might present as a headache or stomach ache, it can cause fatigue, interfere with sleep, and make you feel out of control.1-2 One component of cardiac rehabilitation is stress management. In cardiac rehab, people are taught what steps to take and tools to use to combat feelings of depression, anxiety and situations that cause overwhelming stress.2 Professionals offer guidance on the management of:

  • General health and well being
  • Smoking cessation
  • Blood pressure monitoring
  • Heart-healthy eating
  • Maintaining or achieving a healthy weight

Identifying stressors

Ask yourself, what is causing stress in your life? If you are able to answer this question, you may be able to begin to remedy the situation. Some people may need assistance in this process such as finding someone to talk to to help you understand the reasons behind the feelings. Problem-solving skills generally used elsewhere in life can help to navigate the stress factors that can be changed. Unfortunately, not all causes can be changed.4

Ways to manage stress

Negative stress can interfere with mental, physical and emotional performance.1-4

  • Journal- it helps to write about your concerns it may be a window to what is causing your stress
  • Express your feelings -talk or cry, it’s okay to let your feelings out
  • Enjoy yourself – spend time doing something that gives you pleasure
  • Reduce or quit smoking
  • Limit coffee and alcohol
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet

Try healthy activities to relieve stress or reduce its harmful effects.1-3

  • Exercise – regular exercise is good for the body and the mind
  • Relax – try yoga, breathing exercises or massage
  • Focus – mindfulness, meditation, and other techniques can help
  • Laugh – your grandmother said laughter is the best medicine

Lifestyle changes can help minimize stress levels. Getting enough sleep and exercise can affect your mood and energy level.3 Time management and time for yourself are two skills that can help manage multiple demands, giving yourself permission to take care of you.1 Remember that it is okay to ask for help. From professionals to family and friends, studies have demonstrated that people with a strong social support network are better able to manage stress.1

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Written by: Linda Minton | Last reviewed: March 2021