Distress or De-Stress – Heart Disease and Your Emotions


You have probably seen this scenario in a movie or on TV – someone got very angry and then suddenly, he had a heart attack. While it makes a great story, the real-life impact of emotional distress on your heart is usually not so sudden or dramatic. However, stress does have an effect on your heart and blood vessels.


First, the facts. When we are stressed, we release hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to help us deal with the situation. These hormones get us ready for “flight or fight.” You have probably heard stories about people who can do strange things, like lifting a car or a refrigerator when these hormones kick in. For most of us, stress comes from our everyday lives. We juggle demands, not cars, so these hormones become harmful rather than helpful. They also raise blood glucose levels, release cholesterol and, over time, raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, speeding up the development of fatty deposits in the blood stream. This increases your risk for high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes.


You may remember reading about types of personalities and how they relate to your risk for a heart attack. People who have Type A personality were thought to be at great risk because they were hard-driving and hard-working. However, further research did not back up this finding. Now there is a different idea. Based on new research, overall distress is linked with coronary heart disease and high blood pressure. Distress is defined as the combination of a negative outlook with social inhibition. Signs of this so-called Type D personality include worry, irritability, gloom, and lack of self-confidence. The truly harmful emotions appear to be anxiety, hostility, and hopelessness. No one has yet shown that decreasing your distress will help you prevent heart disease, but it may help to make your life, and the lives of those around you easier.


Although you cannot avoid all stress, you can still learn to de-stress. De-stress means to relax and stop the feeling of stress. It is being able to balance the negative and positive aspects of your life. A lot of our distress is caused by negative experiences and feelings that make us anxious and hostile. Just as you need to clean out your closet now and then, you also need to clean out your life of things that are distressing. Sometimes, it means saying “no” to certain people or situations. Other times, it means deciding to let go of old hurts and negative feelings. Distress is usually not caused by an event, but how we perceive and react to the situation. Although we cannot always prevent stress, we can reframe our view or perception. Try asking yourself, “What is the worst thing that can happen if I am late because I am stuck in traffic?”

Physical activity is another way to de-stress. Activity releases endorphins (the “feel good hormones) that counteract the effects of the stress hormones. Many people find taking a brisk walk to going to the gym after work helps them leave their stress behind.

Here are some more ideas for handling stress:

Meditation: Many find this helpful in releasing some stress and achieving peacefulness.

Relaxation and deep breathing exercises: There is a variety of proper breathing information available at your local library, video store, and on the internet for fighting stress. However, it may just take several tries before you can find a technique that will help you feel relaxed, so be patient and keep looking.

Stress management classes: Many community and senior centers offer classes in yoga or stress management. They not only help you learn to manage stress, but also how to de-stress as much of your life as you can.

Expressing your feelings: Distress also comes from pent-up feelings that eat us away. Find someone who is a good listener (rather than an advice giver) or write down your negative feelings. Listening to yourself talking about your situation or reading what you have written gives you a chance to reflect and think about your actions. Through reflection comes insight.

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