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Doctors' Notes

Matters of the Heart: Is Stress Ruining Your Life?

Our physician experts reveal the connection between stress and heart health. Plus, tips on how to recognize if you are stressed.
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Welcome to Doctors’ Notes, our newest contribution from Urban Health correspondents and husband and wife physicians Dr. Rob and Dr. Karla Robinson.  The dynamic duo will be fielding questions about health, as it relates to African Americans.  Please feel free to send them questions via digitalpitches@ebony.comWe promise to keep it anonymous. 

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Question:  I am under a lot of stress right now and occasionally I worry that it may cause me to have a heart attack.  Is it possible to be stressed to death?

How many of us can admit to experiencing some level of stress this week? In all likelihood, most of us can relate to this reader. In fact, statistics show that at least 43 percent of people report that stress has caused them to lie awake at night. The problem is that stress not only causes sleepless nights, but it can also have an impact on your heart health and overall health.

Dr. Karla says:

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women.  While our community tends to have many risk factors that lead to heart disease, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, we also experience stress at extreme levels, which can play a role in our development of heart disease. 

While research has not shown a direct link between stress and heart disease, we know that stress does have a direct impact on the many other risk factors that lead to heart disease.  For example, stress has been linked to obesity for a long time.  Let’s face it, when you are stressed there is a tendency to overeat.  While some under stress may eat fewer meals, there is still a tendency to eat much larger meals each time, often leading to weight gain.

Research has also discovered evidence that certain hormones are a factor when under stress.  Cortisol, a hormone that is released throughout the body when under chronic stress, is a known appetite stimulant and a major contributor to fat storage in the body.  Additionally, serotonin known as our “happy hormone” is increased by eating a meal high in carbohydrates.  When under stress, our bodies tend to crave foods in order to feel better- hence the term “comfort food.”  

Not only is obesity a major risk factor in developing hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol (which are known to cause heart disease), it can also increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

Dr. Rob says:

In addition to affecting women, heart disease is also the leading cause of death in men.  It’s time for our community to realize what’s killing us.  Right now, it’s heart disease.  While we can’t definitively say that your stress can give you a heart attack, the fact of the matter is that we do have high levels of heart disease, high levels of stress, and the highest death rates amongst all other groups.  Something has got to give.

One of the first steps to decreasing stress in our lives is to recognize it.  Here are the top five myths related to stress, as well as some tips to reduce it. 

Myth #1: Stress is normal and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. 

While potentially stressful things and events are prevalent, our response to them is what determines our “stress level.”  We can prevent some of the stress we experience by avoiding the stressors that we can, or by changing our reaction to the stressors that we can’t.

Myth #2: Stress shows up the same way in everyone. 

This is untrue.  Many may have physical manifestations of their stress (physical aches and pain, abdominal pain, nausea, headaches), while others may have a more psychological manifestation (depression, anxiety, anger etc.).  Every person’s response to stress is different, and it may differ in the same individual depending on the stressor.

Myth #3: I don’t have any major symptoms of stress, so I must not have it. 

There can certainly be an unhealthy amount of stress before major health symptoms appear. If you are using alcohol, and/or drugs regularly, you may be self-treating stress in your life. If you are experiencing minor symptoms of stress, these may be the warning signs that things are starting to get out of control and it is the best time to reevaluate stressors in your life.

Myth #4: If I ignore the symptoms of stress, they will eventually go away. 

Stress will not go away on its own. It takes a conscious effort by you to change the stressors in your life. Ignoring the signs of stress may lead to worsening of the manifestations of stress. Take the time to address these issues today, before it is too late.

Myth #5: Stress is necessary to perform well. 

This can’t be further from the truth. There is a distinct difference between stress and motivation. Having goals and pushing yourself to reach them can be considered motivating factors.  Anxiety, the inability to concentrate, and extreme frustration while trying to accomplish a goal is considered stress, and often times leads to poor performance.  For some who are still able to reach their goals under these circumstances, it is often times in spite of stress, not because of stress. 

It’s a health thing…we’ve got to understand!

About the Doctors:

Dr. Karla and Dr. Rob are the founders of Urban Housecall Magazine and host the Urban Housecall Radio Show.  For more from the doctors, visit their website at www.urbanhousecallmagazine.com, like them on Facebook UrbanHousecallMagazine, and follow them on Twitter @urbanhousecall!