Several new studies have shown that those prone to chronic worry and stress were three to four times more likely to be diagnosed with heart problems, and have a 53 percent increased risk for high blood pressure and stroke.
Cardiologist and medical researcher Jerome E. Granato, M.D., author of Living With Coronary Heart Disease, notes that worrying about situations that we have no control over has a direct impact on our health, while having a positive attitude might be good for the heart.
One recent study in Britain found that optimistic people had three times lower incidence of death from heart attacks and strokes than their pessimistic counterparts. Chronic stress has been linked to elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, weight gain and substance abuse, all risk factors for heart disease.
Some of the ways worry, stress, fear and anxiety can hurt your heart include:
Adds belly fat. With chronic unresolved, unmanaged stress, cortisol levels increase, which can potentially lead to increased levels of abdominal fat. Visceral fat, which accumulates around the midsection and surrounds the internal organs, is associated with greater health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body, including elevated risk of heart attack, stroke and high cholesterol.
Keeps you up at night. Chronic stress can easily interfere with our ability to get the sleep we need to function at our best. A number of studies, including Harvard's Nurses' Health Study, has linked insufficient or irregular sleep to a higher incidence of heart disease.
Leads to depression. People who worry about situations about which they have no control are at higher risk of slipping into depression. While the link between depression and heart disease has not been definitely proven, the National Institute for Mental Health says that depression often coexists with heart disease and stroke.
Can snowball into an anxiety disorder. Those who feel traumatized day after day by dire economic news or other issues over which they have no control are at increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder. People with anxiety disorders are more likely to develop hypertension and angina, both risk factors for heart disease. Causes weight gain. Prolonged stress often leads to overall weight gain. Experts agree that the more fat your body must carry, the harder this is on your heart and the higher the risk for potential heart attack. May lead to substance abuse. People in the throes of worry and panic often self-medicate by drinking too much, smoking or abusing prescription drugs, all of which we know are bad for the heart. Dr. Granato shares some of his favorite everyday techniques for reducing stress: Scream in your car. Granato says, "This may sound strange, but it's one great way to safely let off steam. He adds, "Don't censor yourself! Aside from being temporarily hoarse, you'll feel better instantly." Take a bath in the dark. The combination of water and silence, with no visual stimulation equals total relaxation. Granato suggests breathing deeply, and letting worries melt away as your mind wanders. Change your viewing habits. This requires taking a good look at the amount and volume of noise that you deal with and the extent of violent television programs or movies that you might be watching. Granato also advises muting commercials if and when increased volume annoys you. Revise your standards. We can't avoid stress, but we can control our response to it. If you're a perfectionist, allow yourself to do tasks that aren't a matter of life or death to 95 percent. Take pressure off yourself when it won't matter one wink to anyone but you.
Exercise. Physical activity increases levels of feel good chemicals, which in turn help you more easily deal with stress. Granato also suggests deep breathing exercises to help increase oxygen flow, which is great for the heart and lungs. Program your iPod. Music really does relax you. Find a dozen or more songs that make you feel relaxed, happy and calm. Listen to them whenever you feel most uptight, like at the end of your workday. Break it down. The reason many of us feel stress is because we become overwhelmed by work and other obligations. Break tasks or problems down into small parts that you can tackle easily. Marjie Gilliam is an International Sports Sciences Association Master certified personal trainer and fitness consultant. She owns Custom Fitness Personal Training Services.