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Can (Holiday) Stress Cause a Heart Attack?

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Woman carrying too many gift boxes

The joy, excitement and rush – physically and emotionally – of the holidays are here. Along with gifts, magic and memories comes the stress: shopping, over-spending, cooking, events, expectations and family dynamics. It should be no surprise that, left unchecked, the stress and anxiety of creating the picture-perfect holiday can be detrimental to physical and mental health. And that includes heart health.

“When we try to be everything to everyone we lose sight of our personal health,” says University Hospitals cardiologist Myttle Mayuga, MD. “We don’t eat right. We don’t get enough exercise, rest and downtime. And we get stressed easily. All of these factors increase the risk of heart disease and heart attack.”

Heart Disease Risks

Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women. Most people know the common risk factors for heart disease, which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and smoking. But fewer people are aware of the significant risks that stress, depression and anxiety can pose to heart health.

Ongoing or sudden extreme life circumstances, such as divorce, ongoing family conflict, personal disaster or the death of a loved one, have been linked to heart attacks and heart failure. And persistent stress can diminish or prevent healing. But how does stress actually cause heart problems?

Connecting Stress with Heart Disease

When under stress, the body releases cortisol and other stress hormones. Cortisol signals the nervous system to increase heart rate and blood pressure for the body’s “fight or flight” response. In the short-term cortisol is good, powering you when you need it most. But in the long-term, ongoing stress can contribute to high blood pressure and can cause stress in other parts of the body as well.

In addition to increasing the risk of heart attack and blood clots, high blood pressure may also increase the risk for heart failure. Narrowed and hardened vessels require the heart to work harder to pump blood to the body. To meet the demand, the heart gets larger and pumps faster. With the heart working harder than it should and beyond its capabilities, in time, a person could experience fatigue, shortness of breath and an inability to accomplish daily activities – all symptoms of heart failure.

How to Relieve Stress & Protect Heart Health

Despite the stress of the holidays, it’s crucial to make your health a priority throughout the season. Lifestyle choices that benefit your physical and mental health will also support your heart health.

  • First, support your physical health. Along with the occasional indulgences of holiday treats, try to maintain a healthy diet of nutritious whole foods. Stay hydrated by choosing water or low-calorie, non-caffeinated beverages which can help curb overeating and high-calorie cravings. Drink alcohol responsibly and sparingly. If you smoke, find help to quit. And stay active through focused exercise, daily activities and high-energy opportunities such as dancing or winter sports. Get plenty of rest and good quality sleep.
  • Second, do your best to reduce stress. Focus on things that add joy and meaning during the holidays. Make your holiday season to-do list, then consider each item and choose what’s most important. Let go of unachievable expectations and extras that simply add stress. Calm yourself with physical relaxation exercises, breathing and meditation. Strengthen your spirit and soul through volunteer services or events, small acts of gratitude and kindness, and charitable giving to boost personal meaning and connection.
  • Finally, to reduce heart risk, it’s critical to know your numbers – your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels – and follow your doctor’s advice. An ounce of prevention is more valuable than a pound of cure. If you find that holiday stress is taking over, talk with a health care provider. Get the help and advice you need to improve diet and exercise, reduce alcohol intake, quit smoking and reduce stress.

Related Links

The experts at University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute have the advanced training and experience to diagnose and treat all types of cardiovascular conditions, including hypertension. Our expertise ranges from the management of chronic diseases to the most complex open heart surgical procedures – and everything in between.

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