Stress can break your heart

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In short: mental vulnerability, which can be a personality trait, a state due to stressful circumstances or a combination of both, can result in higher risk of heart disease and health problems affecting the circulation.

I am interested in the 'mind-body' connection. In fact, I believe that there is no real separation between body and mind, but perhaps that will be the subject of another blogpost. Because of this interest I found myself reading a press release from EuroPRevent 2013 congress in Rome. In it Anders Borglykke -- whose surname makes me think of Star Trekk and assimilation -- tells a tale that has taken 15 years to tell. Both shrinks like Russ and I and cardiologists like Borglykke have known for years about the risks to heart that stress and anxiety can cause. However it has not been clear exactly how they work and how much they increase the risk of having both serious and mild heart problems.

To answer this question Borglykke and his team looked at 11,000 people for close to 16 years. They used a scale with them to measure both stress or personality characteristics that make people prone to stress and then they waited. They waited, and waited, and waited some more. That is how the research sausage is made, mainly waiting. While they waited they recorded who had heart problems, when, and how bad they were.

It turns out that people who are stressed or who are vulnerable to stress (mentally vulnerable people) are 36% more likely to have heart problems both mild and serious, than those who are more relaxed or who cope better with anxiety. This is after making sure that the risk was not due to the big risk factors: being a man, smoking, having high blood pressure, being older, and having a high cholesterol.

While the big 5 are still the main risk factors for heart problems we cannot ignore stress and getting better at dealing with it. In fact, many of the things we do to reduce stress will also improve the other risk factors. Here are two things to focus on:

  • Practice relaxation regularly: this will lower your stress while you do it but also over time with practice you can get better at coping with stress. Also, meditation and other forms of relaxation have been shown to reduce blood pressure, so that's a 2 for 1.
  • Exercise: it can help de-stress and also will help you reduce your weight and your blood pressure as a result. That's a 3 for 1!

If you don't have a clue about how to start with the relaxation bit, take a look at Stress Free where we teach a few easy-to-learn techniques.