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The Effects of Stress on Your Vascular System
Omar P. Haqqani, MD
Midland Daily News
November 13, 2016
Stress actually serves a purpose and can be positive in the short-term when it causes our bodies to release adrenaline, enhancing our performance and helping us to accomplish goals. However, stress that is constant and persists over an extended period of time can be debilitating and seriously affect your overall health – this is known as chronic stress.
Stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension, and is our body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. These can be external (from the environment or social situations) or internal (due to illness or psychological).
Your nervous system responds to demands and threats by releasing hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper.
These physical changes are your body’s way of helping you by increasing your awareness and enhancing your focus. This is beneficial in the short-term; however, those who are subjected to continuing stress-induced physical changes can develop chronic stress.
Approximately 22 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic stress – nearly one-quarter of the adult population. These people tend to have persistent external stresses from things such as the workplace, relationship difficulties, or financial problems, as well as internal stresses such as chronic worrying, pessimism, and inability to achieve lofty goals.
Chronic stress can affect both our physical and psychological well-being by causing a variety of problems, including high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and worsen diabetes complications. People with chronic stress are also more prone to smoke excessively.
All of these attributed problems have a negative effect on your vascular system.
When you have high blood pressure, the force exerted on your blood vessels is too high and can weaken blood vessel walls. These weakened blood vessels become more susceptible to plaque build-up, which can result in peripheral vascular disease and possibly lead to a stroke.
High blood pressure also causes atherosclerosis – a hardening of the arteries that restricts blood flow.
Anxiety places an extra strain on your vascular system by increasing both your heart rate and blood pressure.
Depression causes increased platelet reactivity, or sticky platelets. These are the cells that facilitate blood clotting. Increased platelet stickiness increases your susceptibility to blood clots, which can cause a dangerous embolism or stroke.
Stress can worsen diabetes in a few ways. It increases the likelihood of bad behaviors – such as unhealthy eating and excessive drinking – that make managing the disease more difficult. It also directly raises the glucose levels of people with type 2 diabetes. Unchecked diabetes can also lead to high blood pressure and atherosclerosis.
To address chronic stress, you can begin by setting limits. Identify the commitments that are overwhelming you and prioritize what you must do and what may be non-essential. You should also develop a support team. Whether it is one person or a group of people, find someone who you can share your burdens with and who may possibly even help you accomplish tasks that are overwhelming you.
Ask yourself what lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your stress. Find ways to improve stressful relationships, whether that be through counseling or ending difficult relationships.
Cut back on your caffeine consumption and incorporate a light aerobic routine into your day; this can be as simple as a 30-minute brisk walk daily.
Strive to maintain a positive outlook. Refute negative thoughts and try seeing problems as opportunities. Engage in calming activities such as listening to relaxing music or reading prior to going to bed. Stress often interferes with your sleep patterns, so be mindful of whether you are getting adequate sleep.
If you are unable to manage anxiety and depression through lifestyle changes and mindfulness, talk to your doctor about available medications to help manage these conditions. There is no reason for you to feel overwhelmed or hopeless when medical strategies to effectively manage anxiety and depression are available.
The health consequences of chronic stress on your vascular system are serious. Yet, many people who suffer from it are not making the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce stress and ultimately prevent the associated health risks.
If you suffer from chronic stress, you should partner with your healthcare provider to devise an effective plan to reduce your stress for improved vascular health.
Dr. Omar P. Haqqani, MD is the Chief of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery at Vascular Health Clinics in Midland.
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