February is American Heart Month, a time when we spotlight heart disease, the leading cause of death in this country. This year, American Heart Month holds special significance due to the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on the public’s heart health, including potential harmful effects on the heart and vascular system.
There is no doubt that coronavirus (COVID-19) has brought a great deal of stress and anxiety into our lives. Many of us are feeling a strain on our mental health as we manage new social and economic challenges caused by the pandemic. This stress may be affecting more than just our mental health, though.
Stress is a normal part of life, however if left unmanaged, it can lead to physical problems as well as emotional and psychological ones. Chronic stress may lead to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which can pose a risk for heart attack and stroke. Some people may “self-medicate,” choosing to drink too much alcohol or smoke cigarettes to “manage” their chronic stress, however these habits can increase blood pressure and may damage artery walls.
In addition, recent research shows that anxiety around COVID-19 may be causing a spike in cases of broken heart syndrome, a sudden cardiac event that has similar symptoms to a heart attack, including intense chest pain. It is caused by a sudden rush of hormones, which can be brought on by an extremely stressful event. This condition is also sometimes called stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Fortunately, most people who experience broken heart syndrome can be treated and make a full recovery a few weeks after the event.
Living a healthy lifestyle is key to ensuring heart health. In addition to developing and maintaining healthy eating habits, it is important to find ways to keep our stress and anxiety levels low. These five simple tips can help you do just that.
- Stay positive. Laughter has been found to lower levels of stress hormones, reduce inflammation in the arteries, and increase “good” HDL cholesterol.
- This practice of inward-focused thought and deep breathing has been shown to reduce heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure. Meditation’s close relatives, yoga and prayer, can also relax the mind and body.
- Every time you are physically active, whether you take a walk or play tennis, your body releases mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins. Exercising not only helps you destress, it also protects against heart disease by lowering your blood pressure, strengthening your heart muscle, and helping you maintain a healthy weight.
- Unplug. It’s impossible to escape stress when it follows you everywhere. Cut the cord. Avoid emails and TV news. Take time each day — even if it’s for just 10 or 15 minutes — to escape from the world.
- Find ways to destress. Simple things, like a warm bath, listening to music, or spending time on a favorite hobby, can give you a much-needed break from the stressors in your life.
Finally, it is important to be sure that you visit your physician, in person or via phone or video call, as needed during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Do not delay a visit, particularly if you are having unusual symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest discomfort, pain between the shoulder blades or in one or both arms or feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness. The American Heart Association has even created “Don’t Die of Doubt,” a national awareness campaign that reminding us that hospitals are the safest place to go when you have heart symptoms. For more information on keeping your heart healthy or to schedule an appointment to discuss any heart concerns you may have, contact the caring providers of CCHC Heart and Vascular Specialists at 252-63-HEART (634-3278.)
Sources: American Heart Association, Harvard.edu