Have you ever felt the weight of an upcoming deadline? Are family or relationship issues a constant worry? If this describes you, know that you’re not alone. According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey, 67% of adults in the U.S. said their stress level has increased during the coronavirus pandemic. This is due not only to COVID-19—politics, the economy, work intensity and personal family issues have also played a role.
While long-lasting (chronic) stress often leads to symptoms of anxiety, uneasiness and irritability, it can also lead to physiological changes in your body and your overall health. Stress has been found to increase the chance of heart disease, including high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
Researchers believe the increased chance of heart disease in people who have chronic stress may be due to inflammation. Inflammation is a protective condition in which the body responds to infection or injury. While inflammation can be beneficial to help you heal, it can also cause harm to your body if it stays unresolved for too long.
Many people know that factors such as high cholesterol and too much inflammation can lead to an increased risk of a heart attack. When you have chronic stress, there is an elevation in stress hormones called corticosteroids (cortisol) and catecholamines. Corticosteroids have been linked to an increase in cholesterol levels and risk of a heart attack. Studies suggest that limiting your stress reduces corticosteroid production, which can lower your chance of having a heart attack.
Participating in healthy stress coping activities such as spending time outside in green spaces, exercising, and doing yoga and meditation can help lower your stress levels and may decrease inflammation. In more severe cases of anxiety and stress, therapy with a licensed professional may help you learn other coping methods or develop a medication plan.
While researchers are still examining the relationship between chronic inflammation and stress, it’s clear that by lowering stress levels, you can make an impact on your overall health.
Alexa Corker is a third-year PhD candidate at the Medical University of South Carolina in the laboratory of Kristine Y. DeLeon-Pennell, PhD. Corker’s research mainly focuses on the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on the cardiovascular system.