By Michelle Mason
When it matters to the heart, chronic stress can cause crippling effects to our overall health, and our heart health.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), stress sets off a chain of events by releasing a hormone called adrenaline. Adrenaline temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise.
“When we hear stress, we automatically think of something negative. I’d first like to distinguish between two types of stress: positive eustress and negative distress,” said Jenna Sneed, a Development Specialist at Texas Children’s Hospital, and a PhD Candidate in Healthcare Management with a focus in Performance Management & Resiliency at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
“Eustress is useful. Eustress focuses our energy, is perceived to be within our coping abilities, typically short-term, feels exciting and improves performance,” said Sneed. “Distress, on the other hand, causes anxiety or concern, can be short or long-term, feels unpleasant, decreases performance and can lead to mental and physical problems. “
Sneed, a Bay Area native, said that prolonged periods of stress can facilitate the transition of someone who once took care of themselves and was in good health to a new normal where one fails to take care of themselves and experiences the effects of one or more chronic conditions.
“Distress is associated with withdrawing from healthy behaviors, which creates a vicious cycle because these behaviors are typically the ones that help us relieve and manage stress in a positive way,” said Sneed.
According to the AHA, physical reactions prepare you to deal with the situation by confronting it or by running away from it – the “fight or flight” response, which is the link between chronic or extreme stress.
More research is needed to determine how stress contributes to heart disease – the leading killer of all Americans.
However, Sneed, a survivor of heart failure who has had three pacemakers, said that stress can be detrimental in the recovery of a heart patient because it “places the heart at an increased risk for a multitude of factors related to heart disease.”
“Stress can aggravate pre-existing conditions or tip a risk factor into presenting, or flaring up, as a symptom. I often think of it as the thing that pushes a condition over the edge,” said Sneed. “Although I’m a survivor and know the importance of self-care, I, too, can get swept up in the daily hustle of trying to manage work, a PhD program, and speaking engagements. I curb this by being very intentional about my weekly routine. I try to schedule each week in a way that aligns to my values and goals.”
One of the ways Sneed does this is by eating whole foods as opposed to processed foods, she said. Every Sunday, Sneed and her husband meal prep for the upcoming work week.
“We’re not always motivated to do this, but we know it’s an investment for the whole week. I also try to utilize activities that will meet multiple needs throughout the week,” said Sneed. “For instance, instead of going to happy hour, I schedule sweat dates with my husband, co-workers, or friends. We meet up and take a yoga or spin class, or walk and talk at the park.”
According to the AHA, stress may affect behaviors and factors that increase heart disease risk, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating.
“Self-awareness is key. Ask yourself ‘what am I feeling?’ Put it into words. It’s important to call the feeling what it really is,” said Sneed. “For example, you may say to yourself, ‘I’m feeling stressed because I’m so busy.’ What you may really be feeling is, ‘I fear that if I say no to certain things, I will lose my significance at work or connection in my personal life.’”
By calling the emotion what it is, Sneed said, you’ve provided yourself a starting point to decide and take action.
“[Stress] closes our hearts to the universal human need to connect. Regardless of industry, failure to meaningfully connect and empathize dehumanizes us,” said Sneed. “Set goals, learn to say no, set up a regular cadence to check in with yourself and/or your spouse, ask for help, and know when and how to restore yourself. We live in a world that praises those who give, give, give. Like our cell phones, sometimes we need to stop and recharge.”
The AHA has a focus on eliminating high blood pressure through its Check.Change.Control. program, an evidence-based hypertension management program that utilizes blood pressure self-monitoring to empower participants to take ownership of their cardiovascular health.
To find out more about Check.Change.Control., visit www.ccctracker.com/aha, and visit www.heart.org to find out more about stress and burnout in correlation to heart health.