Stress and Your Heart

An interesting article on stress and it’s effects from Germany:

Constant stress at work is bad for heart

Aliki Nassoufis, dpa, Hamburg, Germany
The Denver Post

Work is piling up on the desk and in a few hours the presentation must be finished. To make matters worse, the telephone keeps ringing. Job-related stress is common. If it goes on for years, though, it can have serious physical consequences — particularly for the heart.

According to the German Heart Foundation, each year nearly 300,000 people in Germany suffer a a heart attack, often due to stress. So reducing stress at the workplace can be an important means of preventing serious heart disease.

“Stress causes, among other things, the release of more stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream,” explained Ulrich Hildebrandt, head physician in the Cardiology Department at St Irmingard Clinic.

This reaction, he said, was sometimes vital to our forebears: “When in danger, the body went into maximum gear and into a state of emergency to survive critical situations, for example by fleeing from a large animal.”

Stress also ramps up the autonomic nervous system, which “regulates how often the heart beats and how many times a minute it contracts, among other things,” Hildebrandt said. These stress reactions, if persistent or regular, can cause damage to the body.

“Someone suffering from chronic stress is always steamed up, so to speak,” remarked Karl-Heinz Ladwig, a member of the German Heart Foundation’s scientific advisory board. “This means, for example, that the heart rate is constantly elevated and the heart beats more frequently than in its normal state.”

More strain is put on the heart, he said, resulting in more damage. The regular release of stress hormones into the bloodstream can also lead to high blood pressure and irritable bowel syndrome.

“Another aspect is that the psyche can affect the body’s immune system,” Ladwig pointed out. In other words, a person under constant stress gets infections more often and tends to heal from wounds more slowly.

“Work-related stress is a combination of objective and subjective parameters,” he said. Though studies have shown that objective stress factors such as time pressure, constant noise, lots of overtime and a heavy workload considerably increase the risk of heart disease, Ladwig said, “how you react to these objective factors and whether you can try to change them also plays a role.”

Still, the causes of stress are more objective in nature than mental, he noted. But they need not lead to a heart attack or other forms of heart disease.

“You can try to reduce the stress somewhat,” advised Jochen Jordan, a psychocardiologist and member of the German Cardiac Society.

People who are always setting themselves higher goals and putting themselves under pressure are heightening stress, he remarked. “Instead,” he said, “you should ask yourself, ‘Is this work style worth it? Is this the way I want to live?'”

Those who put less stress on themselves are taking care of their cardiovascular system.

Exercise is also a very important way to ease stress since “it helps flush stress hormones like adrenaline out of the body,” noted Jordan, who recommended about three hours of aerobic exercise a week.

“It can be cycling, jogging or Nordic walking,” he said, and gave the following example: When a sales representative arrives at his destination in a nervous state after a drive of several hours, he should first go for a jog instead of meeting the customer for a hearty meal.

Purposeful relaxation training can help, too. “The aim is to lower the pulse and blood pressure,” Jordan said. Simply plopping down on the sofa and watching TV may seem like relaxation but is often of little help.

“Techniques that stimulate the parasympathic nervous system — that bring about calm and rest, that is — are usually better,” he said. “For example, yoga, tai chi or listening to relaxing music.”

Some occupations are intrinsically more likely than others to be stressful. Studies have shown prolonged night and shift work to be harmful, noted Jordan. In the long run, he said, such work seriously jeopardizes a person’s circadian rhythm. “Jobs requiring a lot of driving also pose the risk of heart diseases,” he added, citing bus, taxi and lorry drivers. Jordan said that many people were very tense for a long time while driving and were then unable to really relax.

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