Stress Increases Your Risk of Heart Disease

Taking steps to reduce stress can help you live younger.

Medically reviewed in April 2021

Did you know that a small amount of stress is good for you? It helps motivate you to get things done. Too much stress can have the opposite effect, increasing your risk for everything from backaches and headaches to heart disease and even the common cold. In fact, men who persistently experience moderate levels of stress have a 50% higher mortality rate. That's why it's so important to reduce stress if it's gotten out of hand.

Your Reaction to Stress
Part of the reason chronic stress is bad for you is it encourages unhealthy habits, such as eating junk food. (Unfortunately, most people don't take solace in a bowl of kale). When stressed, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which increases insulin levels, making you crave fatty and sugary carbohydrates.

You may also feel like you don't have the time or energy to exercise. You may not spend as much time with family or friends, or you may lean on vices, such as smoking and drinking, to reduce stress. Over time, these behaviors can lead to high cholesterol, obesity, and high blood pressure -- all risk factors for heart disease. Because chronic stress can sap the immune system and increase your heart disease risk, eating a nutrient-rich diet and getting regular exercise can help blunt the effects of stress.

Stress and Heart Disease
According to Marc Gillinov, heart surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and coauthor of the book Heart 411, there's a strong connection between emotional stress and heart disease. "Emotional stress can trigger a heart attack in people with heart disease," he says. "It may also contribute to the development of heart disease."

Repeated bouts of anger -- like when you're cut off in traffic or you spill coffee on your keyboard -- are linked to thickening of the arteries and the development of plaque. Men who frequently display anger over time appear to have a greater risk of heart disease. People who are pessimistic, cynical, anxious, or depressed don't fare much better. In fact, most negative emotions have been associated with a greater risk of heart disease. Chronic job stress alone may double the risk of fatal heart attack.

Reduce Stress to Live Younger
Your mental outlook on life is closely connected to your physical health. When you can't cope, everyday pressures have a way of getting under our skin -- sapping our energy and spoiling our mood. Over time, chronic stress can even lead to emotional issues, such as anxiety and depression. Stress that makes you feel sad, angry, or disempowered tends to do the most damage," says David Katz, MD, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine.

We've all heard about the power of positive thinking. Learning how to stay upbeat can help reduce stress and may even help prevent serious conditions, such as heart disease. The most crucial element in staying positive may be learning how to avoid negative, destructive thinking when you fail. Everyone experiences setbacks in life, and being able to bounce back -- without beating yourself up -- is one of the most effective ways to beat stress and its effects on your health. Here's the best benefit: Taking steps to manage stress can make your RealAge up to 2.4 years younger.

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