Most people are aware that there is a connection between stress and heart disease. “Stress” refers to excessive pressures or demands that are placed upon us or that we place upon ourselves. In our fast paced, technology-driven, do-things-to-the-extreme culture, persistently increasing pressures and demands are part of everyday life. Unfortunately, our heart health has taken a beating trying to keep up with what our brains think we are capable of handling.

Living with chronic stress is toxic to most of our body’s systems. It often results in poor nutrition, weight problems, physical exhaustion, hostility and reliance on caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Not surprisingly, these are risk factors for heart disease. Stress causes physiological reactions that negatively affects both physical and psychological health.

When under chronic stress, our bodies maintain a high level of the stress hormone called cortisol. Sustained high levels of cortisol can have dangerous, even life threatening effects on body systems. It also triggers appetite. Therefore, chronic stress results in increased appetite which causes stress eating and weight gain.

Weight gain from high levels of cortisol settles primarily inside the abdomen around the internal organs. When there is too much fat in the abdomen, a number of physical problems can occur — high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and higher chance of developing blood clots. These problems are known to lead to serious medical problems, including heart disease and diabetes. Although the standard answer to losing weight is always dieting, the evidence suggests that stress reduction, not dieting, is the key to improving the risk factors and health problems that lead to heart disease.

Stress also appears to affect heart disease on a biological level. Stressful daily life situations have been associated with ischemia, or lack of blood and oxygen to the heart. Stress has also been shown to constrict or narrow blood vessels, to alter lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels in the blood and to result in irregular heart rhythms.

It is true that stress is a subjective experience. Some people handle high stress demands with minimal problems while others are quite reactive to even low levels of stress. The problem contributing to heart disease is that people are not always good judges of their own stress levels, don’t want to admit to being stressed, don’t make or take time to relax enough to counteract their stress and have no idea it is affecting their heart health.

Take an inventory and make a list of what stresses you — they may be big things or little things that accumulate. Some of the more common stressors include:

–Job or career problems –Caregiving ageing relatives
–Marriage, separation, divorce –Perfectionism, Type A behaviors
–Death of a loved one –Finances
–Medical problems –Dieting
–Single parenting –Anxiety, depression
–Moving –Lack of social support
–What other stresses do you have?

If you have not been able to reduce your stress level on your own, it is advisable that you seek psychological treatment. The damage stress can cause to your heart and other organs could result in major health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.