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Coping With Chronic Stress

Taking Control of the Things You Can

Behaviors that increase blood pressure and other heart health risks—and how to change them.

During these extraordinary times, more people across all demographics are feeling the effects of stress. Higher levels of hypertension and greater risks of heart attack can be traced back to long-term, chronic stress. To help make sense of the relationship between chronic stress, high blood pressure and heart health, we asked CalvertHealth Cardiology Department Chair Dr. Cassius Belfonte to answer questions about stress, how some of the behaviors we use to cope with stress can lead to long-term health problems, and to give us better ways to alleviate stress.

Q: How does stress affect my heart?

Stress has been known to raise blood pressure by raising cortisol levels and adrenaline levels. It has also been associated with cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation (Afib). Stress also increases behaviors that can harm the heart indirectly, such as binge eating, increased alcohol use and lack of sleep. Managing stress is key to good heart health.

Q: What if the stress doesn’t seem to go away?

In the short term, stress may not harm the heart. Long-term exposure to stress is a critical concern and should be dealt with as soon as possible by minimizing unhealthy behaviors that may have been triggered by the stress. Adaptation to long-term stress is essential and some people adapt to stress quicker than others.

Q: Many people feel that there is little they can do to avoid the stress of these times. Wouldn’t it be better to have a cocktail every night or eat comfort food than to be stressed all the time?

When the pandemic first began affecting our lives, many people turned to whatever they could to help cope. Along with drinking more alcohol, people who were confined to their homes were not exercising and not keeping to a healthy diet. I do fear the pandemic could result in a higher incidence of cardiac conditions – not only coronary artery disease but atrial fibrillation in particular.

Q: How does drinking alcohol affect my heart health?

There is still a lot we need to understand about how alcohol interacts with our cardiovascular system—what levels are safe or even beneficial. We try to generalize by drinks per day etc., but we are well aware each drink has a different concentration and volume of alcohol. It has been shown there is a strong correlation between alcohol use and atrial fibrillation. People who are binge, or heavy drinkers, over weeks and months can also expect long-term increases in their blood pressure.

Binge drinking is considered:
4+ drinks consumed in one occasion for women
5+ drinks consumed in one occasion for men

Heavy drinking is considered:
8+ drinks consumed in one week for women
15+ drinks consumed in one week for men

Q: How does inactivity affect my overall health?

It’s good to relax after a long, active day. There is nothing wrong with unwinding with a good book or a movie. However, if you have a very sedentary job, you should seek ways to be more active at home. Your body needs to be active in order to maintain fitness and to maintain a healthy weight. Exercise lowers blood pressure, strengthens muscles, reduces inflammation and reduces risk of developing diabetes. Exercise improves your immune system and respiratory function, thus increasing your chance of successfully fighting off respiratory viruses.

Q: How does what I eat affect my overall health?

The recommended daily calorie intake is 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men. Ideally, those calories should be packed with vitamins and nutrients, not sodium, simple carbohydrates and sugars. In stressful times, people tend to take shortcuts to cooking healthy meals or treating themselves to cookies and candy. As the pandemic has stretched on into summer and fall, and then the holidays, it is important to break those unhealthy habits. We are going to eventually get through this pandemic and what I don’t want to see as a cardiologist, is an epidemic of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Q: If stress is bad for me, and all the things I do to try to alleviate stress are bad for me, what am I supposed to do?

The best advice I can give to help people who are experiencing long-term, chronic stress, is to try to build a new, healthy routine. Set a schedule for exercise and consider exercising while watching television. Limit the time you spend following news and current events. You want to stay informed, of course, but tuning in excessively can elevate stress. Consider new hobbies such as adult coloring or learning to play a new instrument. Listen to relaxing music or consider meditation. Most importantly, make time to contact your family and friends.
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