Different people react differently towards stress. While it affects us psychologically, stress has been proven to lead to a variety of health problems. The heart is one such organ significantly impacted by uncontrolled stress.
There is an argument that because stress is psychological, the brain is largely the only organ affected by it. However, the mind-heart connection is a concept that is complex. Many philosophers believed that the heart was the seed of the mind, compared to its cerebral counterpart. Physicians discovered that the heart was more than a bundle of muscles that pumps blood to parts of the body.
In 1628, William Harvey said “every affection of the mind that is attended either with pain or pleasure, hope or fear, is the cause of an agitation whose influence extends to the heart.” Fast forward almost 400 years into the future, there have been studies to illuminate the persistent link between stress and acute myocardial infarctions. German researchers correlated the increase in stress levels to high levels of white blood cells. Elevated levels of white blood cells were found to hasten atherosclerosis, plaque rupture and heart attacks.
Stress is an indefatigable factor which takes a toll on our body. In response to stressful environments, our immune system secretes cortisol to help us cope. However, just like a drug, frequent secretion of cortisol desensitised the body to it, heightening future cortisol requirement. Continuous, elevated cortisol secretion caused inflammation to happen – which is the cardinal sign of heart disease.
Aside from cortisol, our body also secretes adrenaline, which is the cornerstone of our ‘fight or flight’ life saving mechanism. Similar to cortisol, excess amounts of adrenaline have been linked to potentially fatal cardiac arrhythmias. It is ironic that the very substance used to calm a person down can also be the main cause of his or her death.
A lack of effective coping mechanisms put more pressure on our body to rely on adrenaline and cortisol to keep the acute psychological strain at bay. Compounding this effect leads to chronic stress, which is detrimental to our cardiovascular health. We also resort to debilitating habits, in an attempt to deal with stress, such as cigarette smoking or alcohol consumption. These factors have been linked to impinging the cardiovascular health of a person, causing hypertension, hyperlipidaemia, atherosclerosis, and potential myocardial infarctions too.
To counteract the effects of stress and its impact on the heart, plenty of coping strategies can be undertaken. As stress is based on the person’s perspective, having a strong mind and insurmountable spirit are fundamental.
Cortisol and adrenaline have inflammatory properties. Vitamin D can reduce and reverse the effects. Obtained freely through sunlight exposure, this anti-inflammatory agent can reduce arterial stiffness, suppress the hardening of the blood vessels and considerably lower incidences of heart disease and stroke.
Couch potatoes are collectively going to groan at this next piece of advice. Getting up on your feet and exercising at least 30 minutes daily increases the human growth hormone, which promotes muscle growth, and burns excessive fats. Exercising also reduces stress levels through the secretion of beta-endorphins. These chemicals, also known as the pleasure hormones, increase euphoria and reduce pain. It is almost equivalent to narcotics, except that it’s natural, and sniffer dogs in the airports will not bark at you for any illicit drug trafficking.
There are plenty of ways to reduce stress. In many psychological researches studying social connectedness amongst people, those with better support mechanisms in the form of family and friends have been shown to have better cardiac performance compared to the socially inept.
Stress in different people is best explained by those on a roller coaster. Perceptions amongst those who sit at the back are different from the ones in the front. Though the ride is similar, their expectations of the ride are different. The trick to conquering stress is to understand that some situations are unavoidable – and it is how we react to them which is important. If we cope with stress by reacting or behaving the same way, this emotional tailspin will do nothing more but add more stress to our cardiovascular health. Most heart disease is inflammatory in nature, therefore proactive steps to quell inflammation needs to be undertaken. Exercise, eat right, and laugh your way to a healthier heart!