The dangers of stress on your heart health

Mar 12, 2013 at 6:36 a.m. ET

Why do people tell each other “Put your heart into it” when trying to achieve something? Instinctively, people know that putting your heart into a commitment often adds the extra strength to succeed. So shouldn’t we be putting our hearts into keeping our hearts healthy?

Put your heart into stressing less
Woman doing yoga

As the No. 1 killer of women, heart disease is a serious issue. Even though the official Heart Month has passed, it’s important that we remain aware of our heart health. Most of us know the basics — eat right and exercise daily. But recent research indicates that heart health also has a lot to do with how you feel. And stress, beyond ruining your day, is the biggest contributor to heart conditions and issues.

Stress in America

Stress leads to unhealthy lifestyle choices that negatively impact our overall health. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2012 Stress in America survey, 25 percent of Americans report eating to manage stress, while 13 percent report drinking alcohol. Both a poor diet and increased alcohol consumption can contribute to various heart problems.

Additionally, the survey shows factors causing stress are the same for men and women, the top offenders being money, work and the economy. However, it also points out that women report higher levels of stress than men.

The heart attack "witching hour"

As proof of the connection between our emotions and our hearts, Monday mornings are the most common days for heart attacks. Stress levels are at their peaks the day after a weekend, according to Dr. Richard Krasuski, director of adult congenital heart disease services for the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Krasuski adds that doctors even refer to Monday morning as the "witching hour" because of the increase in heart attack cases.

'Broken heart syndrome' is for real

Did you know that "broken heart syndrome" really does exist? According to Dr. Marietta Ambrose, with Penn Heart & Vascular Center, symptoms are similar to that of a heart attack and may include chest pain, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat and generalized weakness. Not surprisingly, women are 7.5 times more likely to develop broken heart syndrome than men are.

Positive steps to reduce your stress

To improve your long-term heart health, start by taking steps to reduce stress in your life. Demanding situations are all around us, like rush hour traffic or the illness of a loved one. Yet there are ways we can change how our bodies react to that these types of circumstances.

Find easy ways to relax

Simple things like laughter can have an immediate positive impact on vascular function, while other activities, like exercise and listening to music, can help you feel calmer and more peaceful. Meditation is another option making its way into the mainstream. This practice incorporates deep-breathing exercises, a quiet setting and focused attention. Hospitals across the country are even converting rooms, such as chapels and closets, into meditation spaces, complete with products to aid both staff and patients in stress management.

Breathe deep

There are various products available that can guide us to better manage stress. For example, Inner Balance helps you synchronize breathing with your heart rhythms, a type of meditation in itself, which reduces the negative effects of stress and improves relaxation with just a few minutes of daily use. This approach can help you change your response to stress. The Larry King Cardiac Foundation even uses this technology, sending it to the patients they serve because of its effectiveness.

This year, take care of your heart health by stressing less. Show your support for the fight against heart disease by taking a deep breath, relaxing and making the first moves toward a stress-free, heart-healthy lifestyle.

More on heart health

New research on the Mediterranean diet and heart health
Bethenny Frankel on heart-healthy snacking
Natural ways women can prevent heart disease