Everyone experiences stress. But I dare say that women in their mid-life experience an almost insurmountable amount of stress every single day. We’re dealing with a lot – work, family commitments, weird and confusing changes to our bodies, brains and moods (hello perimenopause), burnout, divorce, new aches and pains, and a whole lot of overwhelm. Many of us can feel the stress in our bodies. And yet, very few of us stop to consider how this stress might be impacting our overall health. And even fewer stop to consider the impact that stress has on our heart health.
“Heart health? Isn’t that something men need to worry about?” you might ask.
Nope! You need to worry about it too! In fact, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in menopausal women. It’s surprising that so many women don’t know this. What’s even more concerning is that heart attacks can present differently in women than in men. Many women are misdiagnosed by doctors when suffering a heart attack. Shockingly, The New England Journal of Medicine reports that women are seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed during a mid-heart attack and sent home from Emergency compared to men.
Now that you know this, you can see why understanding the impact of stress on your heart health is crucial. Let’s break it down:
What is Stress?
Stress is your body’s natural response to life’s challenges. Back in the day, stress helped your ancestors either hunt for food or avoid becoming a dinosaur’s dinner. Nowadays, you don’t face those kinds of threats. Instead stress is likely a constant presence in your lives and it has significant impact on your body.
For many people, stress is a physical sensation. You might feel a surge of worry, a tight knot in your stomach, a heavy feeling in your chest, or persistent tension.
When you’re stressed, you might notice that your patience wears thin, you struggle to sleep, Hallmark commercials bring tears to your eyes, and you rely on a glass (or four) of wine to get through the evening.
Over time, stress can pile up, making you feel like you’re buried under a mountain of pressure. This is a concern because prolonged stress, especially during perimenopause, can significantly impact your health.
However, stress isn’t always the enemy. Sometimes, a little stress, like pre-presentation nerves, can be motivating. And physical stress from a good workout can make your body more resilient.
Types of Stress
- Physical Stress: Physical stressors include injuries, infections, excessive labor, or overexertion. They also include things like fatigue, blood sugar imbalances, dietary challenges, dehydration, substance abuse, dental issues, and musculoskeletal problems.
- Psychological Stress: Psychological stress covers a wide range of emotions, thoughts, and perceptions that affect our well-being. It includes emotional turmoil such as frustration, sadness, and anger, as well as challenges like worrying, feeling overwhelmed, and struggling for control.
- Psychosocial Stress: Psychosocial stress comes from your interactions with the world around you. It includes challenges in relationships, whether with partners, family, or colleagues. Additionally, the lack of social support and resources can add to this stress. Life events like job loss, financial setbacks, or the loss of loved ones can also be sources of psychosocial stress. It’s the pressures that leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Stress, Your Body and Perimenopause
Improperly managed stress often manifests in physical forms like headaches, heart palpitations, pain, anxiety, and gastrointestinal issues.
Prolonged stress weakens the immune system, and can make you more susceptible to diseases, including cancer.
Both chronic and acute stress also triggers inflammation and affects the nervous system, which could lead to insulin resistance and weight gain. A common complaint of many perimenopausal women.
Further, stress can exacerbate any existing menopause symptoms like brain fog, trouble concentration, and low moods. It can cause more frequent and longer hot flashes. And of course, the dreaded sleep disturbances.
The Impact of Stress on Your Heart
It’s important to understand that chronic stress has been linked to an increased risk of heart problems. Studies suggest that prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels due to long-term stress can raise blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure – all of which are common risk factors for heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
Recognizing that both stress and significant traumatic events can impact heart health is the first step in maintaining your heart health. Prioritizing stress management is important for women. It not only boosts your overall well-being but also helps protect your heart health.
Tips to Manage Stress
Everyone manages their stress differently. Here are a few tools in my toolbox that have worked wonders for me:
- Movement: Incorporating regular physical activity into your routine can help reduce stress by releasing endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.
- Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness involves pausing to recognize stress triggers, and then taking a minute to respond more calmly and effectively.
- Breath Work: Focusing on your breath through techniques like deep breathing can promote relaxation and reduce stress.
- Lifestyle Changes: Making healthy choices in your diet and moderating alcohol intake can positively impact your stress levels.
- Sleep: Prioritizing quality sleep is crucial for managing stress and maintaining overall well-being.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can provide valuable tools and strategies to change thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to stress.
And as always, talk with your healthcare provider. Especially if you’re experiencing significant stress along with feelings of depression or anxiety, it’s vital to address these issues, as they are important for your heart health.