Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other changes associated with increased heart disease risk.

In recognition of American Heart Month in February, Lake Regional Health System is providing education to Lake Sun readers on various heart health topics.

You’ve seen it on TV: Someone gets really upset and suddenly has a heart attack. But does this happen in real life? 

Actually, it does. 

“Sudden, extreme stress, especially when it involves anger, can trigger a heart attack,” said Jennifer Newman, R.N., BSN, cPT, director of Lake Regional Cardiac Services. “But for most people, the most dangerous stress is chronic stress, or stress that continues hour after hour, day after day.”

Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other changes associated with increased heart disease risk.

“Some of the ways people cope with stress make a bad situation worse,” Newman said. “Drinking alcohol, smoking or overeating — these are not good for the heart. But healthy responses to stress can prevent it from taking a toll on the heart.”

Here are five things you should know about stress, provided by the National Institute of Mental Health:

1. Stress affects everyone.

Everyone feels stressed from time to time. Some people cope with stress more effectively or recover from stressful events more quickly. There are different types of stress — all of which carry physical and mental health risks. A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can be an occurrence that keeps happening over a long period of time

Examples of stress include:

Routine stress related to the pressures of work, school, family and other daily responsibilities

Stress brought about by a sudden negative change, such as losing a job, divorce or illness

Traumatic stress experienced when people may be in danger of being seriously hurt or killed, like a major accident, war, assault or a natural disaster. People who experience traumatic stress often experience temporary symptoms of mental illness, but most recover naturally soon after. 

2. Not all stress is bad.

Stress can motivate people to prepare or perform, like when they need to take a test or interview for a new job. Stress can even be life-saving in some situations.

In response to danger, your body prepares to face a threat or flee to safety: Your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity — all functions aimed at survival.

3. Long-term stress can harm your health.

Health problems can occur if the stress response goes on for too long or becomes chronic, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided. With chronic stress, the same life-saving responses can suppress immune, digestive, sleep and reproductive systems, which may cause them to stop working normally.

Different people may feel stress in different ways. For example, some people experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger or irritability. People under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold.

Routine stress may be the hardest type of stress to notice at first. Because the source of stress tends to be more constant than in cases of acute or traumatic stress, the body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning. The continued strain may contribute to serious health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and other illnesses, as well as mental disorders like depression or anxiety.

4. There are ways to manage stress.

The effects of stress tend to build with time. Taking practical steps to manage your stress can reduce or prevent these effects. The following tips may help you to cope with stress:

Recognize your signs of stress, such as difficulty sleeping; increased alcohol and other substance use; being easily angered; feeling depressed; and having low energy.

Talk to your doctor or health care provider. Get proper health care for existing or new health problems. Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and reduce stress.

Try a relaxing activity. Explore stress-coping programs, which may incorporate meditation, yoga, tai chi or other gentle exercises. For some stress-related conditions, these approaches are used in addition to other forms of treatment. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities. Learn more about these techniques on the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website at nccih.nih.gov/health/stress.

Set goals and priorities. 

Decide what must get done and what can wait, and learn to say no to new tasks if they are putting you into overload. Note what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.

Stay connected with people who can provide emotional and other support. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations.

5. If you’re overwhelmed by stress, ask for help from a health professional.

You should seek help right away if you have suicidal thoughts, are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope. Ask your doctor to provide a recommendation. 

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Anyone experiencing severe or long-term, unrelenting stress can become overwhelmed. If you or a loved one is having thoughts of suicide, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential. 

Lake Regional Health System has a comprehensive heart care team that includes interventional cardiologists and a cardiovascular-thoracic surgeon, as well as registered nurses and X-ray technologists who specialize in heart care. As a Level II STEMI Center, Lake Regional is equipped to provide timely, definitive heart attack care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Learn more at lakeregional.com/HeartCare. 

Cardiovascular Screening

Lake Regional’s Cardiovascular Screening has been rescheduled to 7:30 to 10 a.m., Saturday, March 23, in the hospital’s third floor conference rooms. Attend this event for free and low-cost screenings that check for heart disease. Registration is encouraged at lakeregional.com/HeartScreen.