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7 Ways to Minimize Heart Stress

Stress Can Be a Pathway to Heart Problems

Over the past year, COVID-19 has taken an emotional toll on a virus-weary world. And, as the stress of the pandemic wears on, it truly threatens the very heart of health and well-being.

While there are ongoing studies to determine if stress by itself causes heart disease, it is clear that the changes in behavior brought on by stress leads to increased heart problems, says David Fischman, MD, co-director of Jefferson’s Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, professor of medicine at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College; and the director of the interventional cardiology fellowship program.

He says that some people have taken up smoking or turned to alcohol. Others have literally fed their anxiety and gained copious amounts of weight. And there are those who have just given up—stopped exercising, stopped taking their life-sustaining medicines, and stopped seeing their doctors.

“Behaviors such as these are things that happen with stress that, in turn, are major risk factors for the development of heart disease,” he says.

And lately, it seems there’s a lot of that going around.

“The year 2020 was fraught with a lot of stress with the pandemic and the lockdown. And the flip of the calendar to 2021 didn’t magically erase the stressors. The pandemic has not gone away. The stress will not go away,” he says, noting that he has seen patients who are dealing with it unsuccessfully as well as some who are doing well.

“One patient picked up the cigarette (habit) and came in with a heart attack. We see patients who have just stopped taking their blood pressure medications,” he says. “On the other hand, we do see people who have been very successful during this pandemic, who have taken the time to get out there and exercise, and who have lost weight.”

Fischman says there are ways to overcome stress—whether it’s from the pandemic or just everyday anxieties—and take the strain off of your heart.

  1. Get moving. “Get out. It’s good for the mind. It’s good for the heart,” Fischman says. “Getting outside and walking is the best thing you can do. And if you don’t want to go outside, take the clothes off the treadmill or (stationary) bicycle and start exercising.” He also recommends some light weightlifting.
  2. Take stock of your eating habits. “When you’re working from home, there’s a refrigerator filled with food,” he says. “Look at your dietary habits, see how they’ve changed, then be smart and make a plan for healthy eating.”
  3. Reach out. “We’re in lockdown, we’re not out there socializing, and that’s a problem,” Fischman says, suggesting finding ways to safely connect with friends and family.
  4. Connect your body and mind. “Meditation, yoga… these are things you can do at home,” he says, adding that there are TV programs, and instructions on the internet for classes in mindfulness.
  5. Know the difference between stress and depression, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help. “Depression and stress are two different things, and in certain situations, you may need to seek behavioral counseling.” If you’re not sure whether you’re experiencing depression or the effects of stress, err on the side of caution and seek help.
  6. See your doctor. Because of the COVID-19 lockdown, many patients stopped seeing their physicians for ongoing health issues and regular check-ups, and have ignored symptoms for which they would normally have sought medical help. “If something doesn’t seem right, don’t second guess it. Call your doctor. Get evaluated. The offices are safe now (with proper precautions). Or, if you’re still hesitant, use telehealth,” Fischman says. In a worst-case scenario, go to an urgent care center or emergency room.
  7. Keep tabs on the numbers. “Get an ambulatory blood pressure cuff and monitor your blood pressure at home and send the information to your doctor.” Also, if you haven’t had a blood test in a year, speak with your physician to get your cholesterol levels checked.

Philanthropy is important so that we can continue to pursue the research that will answer the question ‘what does stress do to the heart?’ as well as many other questions regarding heart health.

David Fischman, MD

Fischman says that there is much more to be learned about the correlation between stress and heart disease, and research is a crucial step in that direction.

“We know heart disease is the number one cause of death in this country, and there’s so much more research that needs to be done to understand it,” he says, adding that research cannot be conducted without funding. “Philanthropy is important so that we can continue to pursue the research that will answer the question ‘what does stress do to the heart?’ as well as many other questions regarding heart health.”