Stress has a terrible reputation, but it’s not always bad for you. In fact, it’s essential for survival. Being nervous before an important meeting or having sweaty palms at the top of the ski hill are the kinds of normal human responses created in response to stress, and they can help to motivate and heighten awareness. But exposure to too much stress for too long has a very damaging effect on your heart and overall health.
In 2011, nearly one-quarter of Canadians reported that most days were “extremely or quite a bit stressful.”1 The percentage of women reporting stressful days was slightly higher than that of men. This kind of long-term exposure to stress takes it toll on your cardiovascular system and leaves you vulnerable to anxiety, depression and CVD.
Learning to manage stressful situations can help you reduce this risk or avoid making your condition worse if you are already living with cardiovascular disease.
This video shows how the body reacts to stress (National Geographic).
What is stress?
Stress is your mind and body’s response to a perceived threat or or stressor, triggering the instinct known as the fight-or-flight response.5 It can occur when either good or bad things happen in your physical environment, your personal relationships, your work or when you experience a major life change.
When faced with a stressful situation, your body reacts by circulating stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol). These hormones send signals that prepare your body to take action, called a stress response. As a result, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breathing becomes faster and shallow, you start to sweat, and your entire body tenses up.
The stress response is overactive in both anxiety and depression.
Anxiety is more than the occasional or daily stress. It is one of the most distressing emotions people experience and usually develops when a combination of risk factors occurs and triggers an emotional overload. The most common anxiety is “general anxiety,” and it can often lead to an anxiety disorder. It includes periods of nervousness or fear that can happen during difficult moments. Anxiety becomes a serious problem when it is persistent and interferes with your daily life, affecting your behaviour, thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.
Almost everyone feels sad or depressed at times, but clinical depression is stronger and lasts longer. When sadness is accompanied by the inability to cope with everyday life, it may indicate depression. When depressive symptoms are severe over an extended period of time, every aspect of a person’s life can be affected, including physical health, relationships, and work.
There is no single cause of depression, but a combination of factors or situations can increase the risk. Typical contributing causes to depression include unfortunate life events, illness, a chemical imbalance in the brain, genetics, certain medications and drug or alcohol abuse.
Impact on Your Heart Health
How does stress damage my heart?
When you are under stress, specific changes occur in your body, most of which you would never notice. Fat cells that were released into the bloodstream for extra energy become converted into cholesterol. Platelets, the body’s blood clotters, become more “sticky” and start building up inside your arteries. Your blood pressure increases for extended periods of time and your overall patterns of daily life begin to change in ways that make it more difficult to eat well, exercise regularly and get enough rest. All these negative effects increase your risk for cardiovascular disease.
How does anxiety damage my heart?
Anxiety increases the risk for palpitations, an irregular heartbeat, and a heart that races or spasms. Any of these responses may lead to cardiac complications. Anxiety may also lead to unhealthy behaviour, such as smoking, overeating, poor sleep, and decreased physical activity.
How does depression affect my heart?
With depression, you can have elevated levels of stress hormones. These have direct physical effects that put your heart at risk. They increase the risk of blood clotting and cause problems with the inner lining of your blood vessels. This leads to the buildup of plaque and to the development of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
Depression also has indirect effects that cause added risks to your heart. It weakens your immune system and, like anxiety, influences some of the decisions you make around exercise, healthy eating, smoking, and taking medications safely.
People with depression have a more difficult time finding the energy and drive to make healthy lifestyle changes.
What else does stress do to my body?
When you live a stressful life, it can be very difficult to make healthy lifestyle choices. Exposure to high stress levels may cause you to skip exercise or eat unhealthy foods. You may even respond by overeating, smoking, and consuming too much alcohol.6
A number of additional health risks may be associated with stress. The most common include autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, immune system suppression and infertility.
Who is most at risk for stress?
Any sort of change can make you feel stressed out, but different groups of people react differently and are more sensitive to stress.
Women are more likely than men to report physical and emotional symptoms of stress. Many women play significant roles both in the home and in the workforce, making them more susceptible to stress than men.
Watch this video to learn why women are more affected (WebMD).
Teenagers have higher expectations to succeed, the stress of school, numerous extracurricular activities, peer pressure, and job responsibilities.
They make up the core working population, with more responsibilities. Older adults are most likely to be managing multiple careers and supporting a family, dealing with a reduced income related to retirement, or caring for elderly parents.
People with chronic illnesses
This group has a tendency to focus on illness and the issues surrounding it.3
What are the risk factors for anxiety and depression?
There is no single cause for anxiety. Generally, anxiety stems from a combination of factors. Anxiety disorders usually result from more complex causes. The risk for anxiety depends on multiple factors, including genetic predisposition, past experience, beliefs and behaviour, gender (women are more commonly diagnosed or hospitalized with anxiety compared with men) and environment or life events.4
Depression can affect anyone at any time and tends to affect women more than men. Although it can occur at any age, it generally begins in the late teens to mid-20s. The risk for depression increases in heart disease patients. About one in five heart patients experiences clinical depression. Other risk factors include a family history of depression, stressful life situations (such as problems with relationships or stress at work, home, or school), negative life events (for example, childhood abuse or divorce) and imbalances in neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit messages between brain cells).3
How do I know if stress is a problem for me?
When stress, anxiety or depression start to interfere with daily life, it’s a problem. You may have difficulty concentrating, be apprehensive or agitated, or you may feel physical changes such as sweating or difficulty breathing. Knowing the signs can help you recognize when you might need help. See our table of symptoms below for more details. Test your stress index here.
Symptoms of Stress
Symptoms of stress can affect different aspects of your life and can be divided into four categories, as the table outlines.
Symptoms of Stress
Symptoms of Anxiety
Symptoms of Depression
Cognitive (changes in thinking)
Difficulty concentrating or thinking
Negativity or lack of self-confidence
Difficulty making decisions
Emotion (changes in your emotions)
Hopelessness or helplessness
Anxiety or nervousness
Sadness or a sense of guilty
Agitation or an inability to relax
Physical (changes in your body)
Muscle tension or other physical pain/discomfort
Stomach problems, including nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting
Loss of sex drive
Rapid heart rate
High blood pressure
Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
Nervous habits (nail-biting, foot tapping)
Increased use of caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, or other drugs
Neglecting family or work responsibilities
Decline in performance or productivity
Increased heart rate
Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
Changes in appetite associated with weight change
Loss of energy
Difficulties with concentration or memory
Decrease in normal social activities or withdrawal from friends and family
Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, or hopelessness
Reduced interest in sexual activity
Thoughts of death or suicide
How is Stress Diagnosed?
Stress does not require a diagnosis because it is not a mental illness. Rather, prolonged stress poses a danger to your mental health that can eventually lead to illness. Because stress is such an individual experience, it’s important you identify what your own personal life stressors are so that you might better address and treat them.
For general anxiety, diagnosis begins with you. Try to identify whether you have experienced any of the following on most days for six months or more:
- Frequent worrying
- Intense focus on certain life situations (work or finances)
- Distress or burden from constant worry
If have experienced any of these, it’s important you seek advice from your doctor or a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist who can provide appropriate options for treatment.7
This online tool at Here to Help can evaluate your risk for depression and anxiety. Please note that it is intended as an educational aid and is not designed to provide a clinical diagnosis.
General anxiety can be treated with coping strategies and cognitive therapy, which promote positive thinking and help change anxious thoughts into more positive emotions. More severe anxiety disorders may require medication therapy using antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.8
Diagnosing depression usually begins with talking to your doctor about any symptoms you are experiencing. Because your doctor may have no idea you’re depressed, it’s important you tell him or her what you’re feeling.
Effective treatment options include cognitive therapy, medication, and supportive counselling. A combination of these may achieve the best results for reducing your feelings of depression.
Find a therapist near you at Psychology Today.
If your feelings of depression are particularly intense or have lasted a long time, you may benefit from consultation with a doctor. If your depression includes physical symptoms, such as sleeping difficulties, loss of appetite, or fatigue, then it is important to speak with a doctor. Antidepressants are sometimes prescribed under these circumstances. This video offers tips on managing stress, anxiety, and depression (University of Ottawa Heart Institute).
How Can I Lower My Stress?
When you reduce your stress, you not only help yourself, you help others around you. Stress can make you irritable and more prone to anger. When stress becomes severe, you risk taking out your frustrations on family members and friends.
Keeping your stress under control can reduce the chances that it will affect your loved ones. At the same time, your risk for anxiety and depression will diminish, as will the likelihood of damage to your heart health. When you reduce your stress, your friends and loved ones are more likely to enjoy your company and help you maintain a sense of well-being.
Learn ways to manage and control stress through coping strategies, such as:
- Identifying what causes you stress
- Finding ways to reduce the amount of stress
- Creating a healthy plan to relieve stress and its harmful effects3
Although you can’t live a life that is entirely stress-free, you can do your best to avoid stressful situations. For example:
- Learn to say no
- Avoid overscheduling
- Prepare (as best you can) for the events or moments you know will be stressful
- Set realistic goals
Finally, manage your stress with these basic guidelines in mind:
- Be physically active every day. This will help reduce the effects of stress.
- Identify and maintain your strong support networks and good family relationships.
- Get more information on stress management.
- Ask for help if stress becomes a concern.
Coping with Stress from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, includes skills and practical techniques for reducing stress, as well as information on finding help and different options for treatment.
TOOLS AND RESOURCES
- Canadian Mental Health Association: Depression
- Government of Canada: Information on Mental Illness
- Heart and Stroke Foundation: Coping with Stress Booklet
- Canadian Mental Health Association ( Suggestions to help you improve and maintain your mental health, including Mental Health & Addiction — 101 Series)
- Here to Help: Learn Skills (Website with tools to help manage mental health)
- The Mindfulness Clinic (Fee)
- The Mindfulness Solution (Free mindfulness recordings that can be downloaded or listened to online)
- Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic (Fee)
- NeuroActive Program: Complete Brain Training
- Simon Fraser University: Antidepressant Skills Workbooks (Free workbooks that can be downloaded or read online)
3.5 COMMUNITY RESOURCES
- For a pdf document of community services, click here.
1. Perceived Life Stress, 2011. Statistics Canada. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-625-x/2012001/article/11666-eng.htm.
2. Health Profile, June 2012. Statistics Canada. http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/health-sante/82-228/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&Tab=1&Geo1=HR&Code1=3511&Geo2=PR&Code2=35&Data=Rate&SearchText=Champlain%20Health%20Integration%20Network&SearchType=Contains&SearchPR=01&B1=All&Custom=
3. eMental Health Services: Help and Support in Your Community. http://www.ementalhealth.ca/Ottawa-Carleton/Stress/index.php?m=article&ID=8908.
4. Information and Resources for Effective Self-Management of Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders. BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information, October 2003. http://clinic.psych.ubc.ca/files/2010/06/Anxiety-Anxiety-Disorders-Toolkit-BC-Partners.pdf
5. Greenberg JS. Comprehensive Stress Management. 11th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2009.
6. Healthy Canadians: A Federal Report on Comparable Health Indicators 2010, in Health Care System. Health Canada.
8. The Human Face of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada 2006. Public Health Agency of Canada, 2006. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/human-humain06/index-eng.php
9. Depression: You Don't Have to Feel This Way. College of Family Physicians of Canada. http://www.cfpc.ca/ProjectAssets/Templates/Resource.aspx?id=3707.