Living with a certain amount of stress is part of being human. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is creating an unusual amount of stress for nearly all groups of people.
The uncertainty of what may come next with the virus itself, changing health restrictions, and a number of other situations are examples of stressors in our daily lives that did not exist for most of us before 2020. All of these can affect our stress levels, which also affects how our heart functions.
Tim Malins, MD, is a cardiologist with Rochester Regional Health and looks at how stress affects the human body, specifically the heart, and what people can do to better manage their stress levels.
Stress is the body’s response to changes happening in daily life. These changes, known as stressors, all vary in intensity and how long they last.
There is an important distinction to make about stress: there is good stress and bad stress.
Physical activity and exercise cause good stress for our muscles and body. People who exercise have lower levels of cortisol – a hormone released to help regulate the body as a response to stress.
Higher levels of cortisol in an individual’s body can be brought on by mental and emotional stress, which can become chronic if left untreated.
Stress can induce reactions by an individual’s body that can affect their heart health. Some of these can lead to increased risk factors for heart problems, such as:
“Together, all of these factors affect heart health,” Dr. Malins said. “We don’t want to invite these symptoms. Our triglycerides are circulating fats and our blood glucose can be a precursor to diabetes. All of these increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.”
“It is extremely important to identify your sources of stress and then use different methods to help lower them,” Dr. Malins continued. “If symptoms related to stress start to become more serious, then seek help from your primary care provider.”
When it comes down to what stress does to the human body, it is important to look at some of the side effects of stress and risk factors that apply to cardiovascular disease and other heart conditions.
“All of these are precursors to cardiovascular disease – the number one cause of death in the United States each year,” Dr. Malins said.
To manage stress in your own life, there are a wide variety of practices you can follow to reduce those levels.
One of the first things you can do is identify your stress. Be self-aware when it comes to the sources of your daily and long-term stressors.
Learning to say ‘no’ can also a big step in the right direction – especially for people with a ‘Type A’ personality. This idea may seem counterintuitive because people want to solve problems and take on more responsibility to do so, but Dr. Malins suggests being balanced while problem solving is better than being stretched thin and performing poorly.
Exercise is one of the most important and effective ways of reducing stress. Getting out for a brisk walk or doing something active helps to lower the body’s cortisol levels.
Choosing relaxation techniques to slow down your mind are also successful at lowering stress. Some of these might look like pilates, yoga, meditation, or deep breathing.
Being social is tricky during the COVID-19 pandemic, but remaining intentional about keeping friendships and healthy relationships is a good way to lower bad stress. This can also be a time to help you identify potentially toxic relationships that may be causing stress.
Finding humor through laughing at TV, movies, podcasts and books is a great way to boost your mood and combat stress.
Being active outside is good for your stress levels, as well as your overall health. Walking, hiking, and enjoying fresh air generally helps to relieve tension and stress.
Listening to music you enjoy can help to lessen the amount of stress with you may be experiencing.
Writing or journaling as a way to release stressful emotions can help to lower cortisol levels.
Pets can be a good way to help some of the stress dissipate. Adopting a pet strictly for heart health reasons may be something to think twice about, but if it is something you are already considering, it may help with both lowering stress in general and becoming social.
Practicing gratitude encourages people to seek out the good in their own lives and the lives of others each day. Sharing that mindset of thankfulness with others can lower your overall stress level.
Getting good quality sleep is an often-understated way to allow your body to heal itself – both physically and mentally. Avoiding screens for an hour or two before bed has been shown to promote healthy amounts of sleep.
Stress can be overwhelming. Asking your primary care provider for support or a referral to a therapist or counselor is another way to find help. You can also seek out a therapist or counselor on your own to speak with someone about the stress in your life.
Our society is currently in a place where the idea of stress and mental health being linked as a physiological issue is more commonly accepted as fact.
“The most important thing is to self identify,” Dr. Malins said. “It can be easy to dismiss stress as ‘just stress.’ Take a thorough assessment of what is going on in your life, recognize methods that might help you get out of the stressful situation, and give them a try. There is something for everyone.”
If someone is experiencing acute symptoms of a heart condition such as chest pain, they should seek immediate medical help from a professional such as their primary care provider or cardiologist.
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