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  • Written By:Jennifer Walker, BSN, RN, CDP
Stress Can Harm Your Heart

February is National Heart Month. During this month, healthcare providers talk about the importance of getting your blood pressure under control, signs and symptoms of a heart attack, stroke, high cholesterol and coronary artery disease. We talk a lot about diet, exercise, sodium intake, weight management and medications as ways to control your risk factors, but one topic we don’t talk enough about happens to play a very big role in our heart health and that is STRESS. Merriam-Webster defines stress as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation”. Simply put, it is your body’s way of reacting to its environment.

When we think about stress, we tend to think of it in very broad terms, or very significant events such as a catastrophe or going through an illness or an injury. What we don’t realize is that our body does not interpret stress to be caused by big or small stressors. It reacts to stress the same way for all causes. When your body responds to a sudden and/or severe stressor, the person could potentially suffer from a heart attack—even if the individual had no prior history of heart disease. This is also known as “Broken Heart Syndrome”

When we have chronic stressors in our life, our body responds by triggering the immune system. The immune system typically works by identifying an invader, walling off that invader and attacking it. Since stress is not an organism, there is nothing to actually wall off, but your immune system does not know that. It treats stress like any other invader and tries to attack it. The inflammatory response can trigger swelling in arteries and if those arteries contain plaques, those could block blood flow (leading to a heart attack) or could dislodge and travel to the brain (causing a stroke).

More importantly, chronic stress can directly lead to other unhealthy heart habits such as substance abuse, smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. It could also trigger someone to seek out “comfort foods” which typically tend to be higher in fat and cholesterol.

So what can we do to reduce our risk of effects from stress? It is all around us whether it comes from work, home, world events…we can’t avoid it. The key is recognizing that stress exists and putting some good, healthy practices in effect such as:

  • Laugh! Laughing can lower stress hormones (the hormones responsible for stubborn belly fat…. which increases your heart disease risk). It can also reduce inflammation and increase good cholesterol.
  • Practice Deep Breathing. Slow, rhythmic breathing can slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure.
  • Exercise. Exercise releases endorphins which are mood-boosting chemicals. In addition to lowering your stress, it also lowers your blood pressure and strengthens your heart muscle!
  • Try disengaging from your TV, Phone and Social Media. Bad news is everywhere and there is such a thing as overstimulation. We can worry and stress about what people think of us, what we think of others and what is happening all around us. Being connected to so many things can also cause anxiety, which goes hand in hand with stress. So, unplug…. even if it for an hour everyday…and give your body a break from stress!

Doing these things won’t guarantee you will be free from heart disease, but it certainly will lower your risk factor and help you be Heart Healthy!

St. Mary’s is offering free Heart Education classes every Wednesday in February at 2 p.m. For more information or to register go to or contact Jennifer Walker at 816-655-5625 or