Over the last year, more patients have been coming into the Cardiology Department at Vancouver Clinic with stress-induced symptoms. People are experiencing weight gain, higher blood pressure, higher blood sugar, and higher cholesterol. They’re feeling more musculoskeletal chest pain, which is caused by muscle tension, and heart palpitations.
It’s an understandable result of what’s going on in the world. The worry of serious illness is always looming and even simple errands require a new level of caution. What’s more, outlets for dealing with the strain are limited. Social networks have been disrupted, families can’t get together freely, and many gyms are closed. Sitting on the couch while drinking and snacking has never been so easy.
Reduce stress, reduce risks
While medications can blunt the impact of stress, it’s better to control problems at the source before adding prescriptions or increasing dosages. The positive news is that patients have good options for managing stress naturally. The key is to use them. Uncontrolled stress raises the risk for developing cardiovascular disease. For people who already have a serious medical condition, the risks to their health are even greater. No one is immune from stress or its impacts.
Exercise above all else
As a cardiologist, I tell my patients that the most important thing they can do to control stress is exercise. Aerobic exercise reduces psychological stress, keeps the heart healthy and strong, burns calories, and lowers blood sugar and blood pressure. Exercise doesn’t have to be intense for it to be beneficial. Going on a walk and coming home feeing slightly damp and tired is enough. Even marching around the house can start to counter the effects of stress. If patients can only do one thing, they should make it exercise. It’s that beneficial.
Connect and breathe
Other activities and techniques can also reduce stress levels:
- Dial a friend: Talking with others over the phone or on a video call can be a mood lifter.
- Breathe deeply: Breathing and meditation are ancient ways of lowering the heart rate, reducing blood pressure, and undoing tension. Many apps are available to walk people through breathing and meditation exercises. Yoga is another good option.
- Try massage: While it may not be feasible to get a professional massage, a partner or housemate may be up to the task.
- Avoid alcohol: Alcohol raises blood pressure, interrupts sleep, and worsens stress and anxiety.
- Get enough sleep: Sleep deprivation makes people feel stressed in circumstances where they would normally be fine, while adequate sleep improves mental resilience.
It’s important to note that stress can still affect patients whose blood pressure and other numbers fall within an acceptable range. Eating more, waking up in pain, feeling lazy, ruminating, being unable to relax, and having trouble sleeping all indicate a need for better stress management. If you are worried about the impact of stress on your heart health, make an appointment to talk with your doctor.
Dr. Nasreen Ilias-Khan is a cardiologist at Vancouver Clinic. She enjoys caring for all types of cardiology patients, including those seeking care for prevention and health, those managing vascular disease, and those needing additional care due to cancer treatments. She is board certified in cardiovascular disease, internal medicine, echocardiography, nuclear cardiology, and vascular ultrasound.