Today (Thursday ) is World Heart Day, and mental health charity Turn2Me is marking the day by highlighting the link between stress and heart conditions.
The charity said that chronic stress can lead to a stroke or heart attack, and that people should try to reduce their levels of stress for a healthier lifestyle.
“Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances,” said Suzanne Ennis, clinical manager at Turn2Me. “Some symptoms of stress can be elevated blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, palpitations, cold hands and feet, dizziness, and chest pain. Chronic stress leads to serious health problems because it disrupts nearly every system in your body. Part of what makes chronic stress so insidious is its ability to become a 'normal' feeling, it becomes the familiar. This pattern of endurance is what makes chronic stress such a serious health issue.
“Poverty, trauma, general pressure from the demands of life, and more can all cause chronic stress,” she continued. “Chronic stress can lead to cancer, strokes, and heart attacks, as well as violent behaviour and even suicide. While under stress, your heart pumps faster, this can result in increased blood pressure, resulting in stroke or heart attack.”
There are many ways to better manage stress, including:
Relaxation techniques: These are activities that trigger the relaxation response, a physiological change that can help lower your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, and stress hormones. These can include yoga, deep breathing, and stretching.
Cognitive behavioural therapy: CBT is based on the idea that changing unhealthy thinking can change your emotions. A CBT therapist will help you identify negative thinking and learn to automatically replace it with healthy or positive thoughts, reducing stress.
Realistic goal setting: Setting goals can have a positive effect, provide a sense of commitment, and help people feel in control and optimistic. Set goals in your career, relationships, creativity, play, and health can really help manage stress.
Exercise regularly: In addition to having physical health benefits, exercise has been shown to be a powerful stress reliever. Exercise releases endorphins — natural substances that help you feel better and maintain a positive attitude.
Daily reflection: Conduct daily check-ins, by asking yourself how you are. What do you need to help yourself? When you’re feeling overwhelmed, remind yourself of what you do well. Try to have a healthy sense of self.
Prioritise yourself: The more your actions reflect your beliefs, the better you will feel, no matter how busy your life is. It’s okay to say “no” to demands on your time and energy that will place too much stress on you. You don’t always have to meet the expectations of others.
Turn2Me has also highlighted the negative effect anxiety can have on the body.
“Anxiety is an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes,” Ms Ennis said. “The right psychotherapy will teach you to control your anxiety and will offer relief from anxiety in a matter of weeks. Underlying psychological causes or triggers for anxiety, such as those stemming from trauma, are not the target of management techniques; they require longer-term psychotherapy. However, anxiety-management techniques can offer relief, and offer it very speedily. The unpleasant symptoms most likely to be helped by medication are the very ones that your therapist can assist you to correct."
Anxiety symptoms fall into three typical clusters: the physical reaction that constitutes the terror of panic; the "wired" feelings of tension that correlate with being "stressed out" and can include pit-of-the-stomach doom; and the mental anguish of rumination - a brain that won't stop thinking distressing thoughts.
"A therapist armed with methods for addressing these clusters can offer their anxious client the promise of relief,” she added.
Turn2Me said that sometimes people who are going through an anxiety or panic attack think they are having a heart attack. The thought of suffering from a heart attack can be very frightening and make you more anxious. Therefore, it is important to know the difference. People who have persistent or frequent chest pain should contact their GP.
In a panic or anxiety attack, any pain is usually described as 'sharp', and tends to be felt over the heart. The pain is usually made worse by breathing and pressing the centre of the chest. This pain usually disappears within five to 10 minutes.
A person experiencing a heart attack may or may not have pain. Pain, when present, may include a 'crushing' feeling, as if someone is standing on your chest. Pain is not usually made worse by breathing or pressing on the chest, and is usually persistent, lasting longer than five to 10 minutes.
Turn2Me offers several free weekly support groups, and one-to-one counselling sessions are available to assist with managing stress, arming users with the tools they need to identify and reduce their levels of stress. For more information see turn2me.ie