By Dr. Mercola
Your stress level is a major player in your overall health, impacting your risk of chronic health conditions like heart disease, depression and obesity.
But unlike other more obvious risk factors, like over-indulging in junk food or not exercising, stress is more insidious, subtly sneaking up on you over time, increasing your risk of health problems even as you don't noticeably feel sick or realize that your late-night work habits and financial worries are slowly zapping away your vitality.
That said, you may very well feel stressed, and if you do, this is a warning sign that should not be ignored.
People Who Believe Their Health Is Affected By Stress Are Twice as Likely to Have a Heart Attack
In a recent study of stressed individuals, those who said that their health was "extremely" affected by stress had more than twice the risk of having or dying from a heart attack, compared to those who believed stress had no impact on their health.1
This could mean that these individuals were highly in tune with their bodies, and correctly perceived that stress was wearing them down. On the other hand, it could also be an example of the mind-body connection, in that if you believe stress is harming your health, it increases the likelihood that it will.
Either way, this is a significant increase in heart attack risk, so if you currently feel stressed to the point that you believe it is affecting your health, it's time to take stress relief very seriously.
Severe Stress Can Raise Your Heart Attack Risk by 21 Times
Losing a significant person in your life raises your risk of having a heart attack the next day by 21 times, and in the following week by 6 times.2 The risk of heart attacks begins to decline after about a month, perhaps as levels of stress hormones begin to level out.
The study did not get into the causes of the abrupt increase in risk of cardiovascular events like a heart attack, but it's likely related to the flood of stress hormones your body is exposed to following extreme stress.
For instance, adrenaline increases your blood pressure and your heart rate, and it's been suggested it may lead to narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to your heart, or even bind directly to heart cells allowing large amounts of calcium to enter and render the cells temporarily unable to function properly.
Interestingly, while your risk of heart attack increases following severe stress, so does your risk of what's known as stress cardiomyopathy -- or "broken heart syndrome" -- which is basically a "temporary" heart attack that occurs due to stress.
This stress and the subsequent release of stress hormones are thought to "stun" or "shock" the heart, leading to sudden heart muscle weakness. This condition can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention, however it is often a temporary condition that leaves no permanent damage.
When your body is under the stress response, whether acute or chronic, your cortisol and insulin levels rise. These two hormones tend to track each other, so when your cortisol is consistently elevated under a chronic low-level stress response, you may experience difficulty losing weight or building muscle. Additionally, if your cortisol is chronically elevated, you'll tend to gain weight around your midsection, which is a major contributing factor to developing diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome.
Ignoring Your Stress Can Devastate Your Health
We all experience stress sometimes, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some stress, like exercise, is beneficial. Likewise, the stress response can work to your advantage in some cases to give you a burst of energy and focus when you're facing a challenge, be it warding off an attacker or completing an assignment with a tight deadline.
Stress turns ugly when it is either extremely severe, such as facing combat or another traumatic scenario, or long-term. It is the latter that poses a risk to many Americans, who live in a chronically elevated state of stress and anxiety. Over time, chronic stress may impair your immune system and cause a number of detrimental events in your body, including:
Decreased nutrient absorption
||Increased food sensitivity
|Decreased oxygenation to your gut
|As much as four times less blood flow to your digestive system, which leads to decreased metabolism
||Decreased gut flora populations
||Decreased enzymatic output in your gut – as much as 20,000-fold!
Further, when your body remains in a stress-induced 'fight-or-flight' mode for too long, one of the most common consequences of this scenario is that your adrenal glands, faced with excessive stress and burden, become overworked and fatigued. This can lead to a number of related health conditions, including fatigue, autoimmune disorders, skin problems and more. Stress has also been linked to cancer by down-regulating immunosurveillance, potentially triggering the growth of tumors, and even activating multidrug resistance genes within cancer cells. In fact, stress, and by proxy your emotional health, is a leading factor in virtually any disease or illness you can think of.
Are You Tending to Your Emotional Health?
Keeping your stress levels under control has to be an ongoing commitment, like preparing healthy meals and exercising. Unfortunately, many fall into a vicious trap where their strategies for dealing with stress center on unhealthy activities, like watching TV, drinking alcohol, or eating junk foods; many also simply fail to address their emotional health at all, a serious mistake for your well being and physical health.
What you do for stress relief is a personal choice, as your stress management techniques must appeal to you and, more importantly, work for you. If a round of kickboxing helps you get out your frustration, then do it. If meditation is more your speed, that's fine too. Even having a good cry now and then may be beneficial, as tears that are shed due to an emotional response, such as sadness or extreme happiness, contain a high concentration of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) — a chemical linked to stress.
One theory of why you cry when you're sad is that it helps your body release some of these excess stress chemicals, thereby helping you feel more calm and relaxed. Energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can be very effective as well by helping you to actually reprogram your body's reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life. This is important as, generally speaking, a stressor becomes a problem when:
- Your response to it is negative
- Your feelings and emotions are inappropriate for the circumstances
- Your response lasts an excessively long time
- You're feeling continuously overwhelmed, overpowered or overworked
When you use EFT, simple tapping with the fingertips is used to input kinetic energy onto specific meridians on your head and chest while you think about your specific problem -- whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, etc. -- and voice positive affirmations. This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmation works to clear the "short-circuit" -- the emotional block -- from your body's bioenergy system, thus restoring your mind and body's balance, which is essential for optimal health and the healing of chronic stress.