The Downside of Stress Awareness

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If you’re so stressed out you feel it’s harming your health, it may well be. A new study shows that people who feel daily pressures are impacting their well-being are more likely to have – and die from – heart attacks and other episodes of heart disease.

Researchers followed more than 7,200 British men and women, with an average age of about 50, for 18 years as part of a larger study looking at heart health. Periodically, participants would check a box on a questionnaire indicating how much they felt the stress in their life affected their health: not at all, slightly, moderately, a lot, or extremely. During those 18 years, 352 people in the study died of heart disease or had non-fatal heart disease. People who felt stress impacted their health “a lot” or “extremely” had more than double the risk of having one of these serious heart disease episodes than people who said stress affected their health “not at all.” Even when the researchers controlled for heart disease risk factors – high blood pressure, alcohol intake, cholesterol, lack of social support – the people who believed their stress was a major factor had a 50 percent higher risk.

This doesn’t mean that those people are fretting themselves into a coronary. More to the point, thinking that stress is hurting you is probably a sign that it’s already doing harm to your health. “The first step is for these people to try to identify their stressors: It could be work stress, or family, or other reasons,” says Hermann Nabi, PhD, the author of this study and a researcher at INSERM, France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research. “And then they should try to take action; it could be doing physical activity, or going out socially with your friends,” or whatever that person finds relaxing. But if the stress is chronic, Nabi says, it’s important to seek help managing it – better to deal with your stress now than your heart disease later.

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