As if having stress isn’t bad enough, thinking you’re stressed might also cause serious problems. Turns out, perceived stress, or how much you think you’re stressed, is associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Cardiology.
Researchers analysed six studies to see how perceived stress affects your ticker. Each of the studies asked participants to self-report intense or frequent feelings of stress and then followed each participant for about 14 years to see if they were diagnosed with, hospitalised, or died from coronary heart disease. What they found: Participants who reported high levels of stress had a 27 percent higher risk of developing coronary heart disease.
“When people say that they’re stressed, it’s a good indicator of how often they’re experiencing the increased reactivity of their autonomic nervous system – the sort of flight-or-fight response that we think of as associated with stress,” says Donald Edmondson, Ph.D., assistant professor of Behavioural Medicine at the Centre for Behavioural Cardiovascular Health at the Columbia University Medical Centre, and one of the study authors.
In other words, when our minds sense a need for action – which is what happens when we’re faced with a stressful situation – our bodies “gear up” in preparation for some kind of response, he says. When this happens, adrenaline increases blood pressure to boost energy, which can strain your heart. Though this natural reaction dates back to our earliest ancestors, modern-day stressors don’t require an immediate need for physical action.
“Today when we feel stressed it’s not because we have to run away from a lion,” he says. “It’s because our boss is giving us more work than we think we can manage, or one of our family members is in need of care, and we’re trying to juggle too many things at once. These are not things that require our bodies to do a lot, but our bodies still gear up to be active. That cardiovascular response is damaging.”
So damaging that it can, over time, increase the wear-and-tear on the cardiovascular system, which can lead to heart hazards, like the development of plaques, plaque rupture, and cardiac events, he explains.