The Biggest Killer is Stress

Until very recently it was thought that smoking, alcohol, obesity and poor lifestyle were the main causes for people to develop a heart condition. It turns out that they are merely contributory factors. The main trigger for heart attacks, strokes and death it seems is stress.

In the last few years it has been shown that stress has a much more direct impact on our body than we originally thought. Stress causes the amygdala (an area of the brain) to send signals to our bone marrow to produce extra white blood cells. This causes an inflammation of the arteries which increases the risk of a heart attack.

These findings suggest that we should make ourselves a lot more aware of the stresses we are under in our daily lives.

Stress arises when we have to push ourselves beyond what we would normally do. We have to do something that we are not familiar with, not comfortable with or that challenges our capabilities. We may feel as if we are struggling to cope, that we are not in control. It means that we are under pressure or feel threatened.

It is when we ask our body to do something that it is not used to; when we ask our body to do something that it is not conditioned for that we create bodily stresses and expose ourselves to the prospect of a heart attack.

Of course, experiencing such stress isn’t entirely bad. It’s a natural part of our fight-flight bodily defences. Some level of stress can be good for us. It can sharpen us up; motivating, stimulating and energising us. The problem arises when such stresses become incessant.

A stressful situation may be physical, mental or emotional. The pressures that accrue are what create our vulnerability.

That stress may arise in a variety of ways:

  • It may be a new unexperienced pressure, one that we have not encountered before.
  • It may be a pressure that is much greater than we have previously experienced.
  • It may be a sustained pressure which we will have endured for a while but which eventually builds into something much more forceful. We might not even notice its incremental growth. Stress can have a cumulative effect, gradually weakening us.

Undoubtedly, stress is a powerful, debilitating force. It can bring down the strongest, most confident of people.

As a precursor to a possible heart attack, stress can reveal itself in both a person’s mental and physical well-being.

Mentally a person can suffer from mood swings, anger and irritability, depression and worry.

Physically a person can suffer, amongst other things, from sleep problems, fatigue, panic attacks, rising blood pressure and sickness.

These conditions will impact on a person’s behaviour. They may become snappy, have sexual problems and suffer from poor concentration and memory loss.

In an attempt to relieve or divert us from some of these pressures many of us will adopt new behaviours such as overeating, smoking and drinking alcohol. Previously, these behaviours were viewed as the causes of heart problems but now they are recognised more for being a response to the actual stress itself. Strangely, these palliatives, although offering short term relief, actually weaken our bodies over the longer term. They make us even more vulnerable to heart issues. Why – even when knowing the harm that they do – we should find solace in such damaging practices is a behavioural puzzle.

Alternatively, taking medications such as sleeping pills may help but they are hardly the ideal solution. And, too often, we can acquire an unhealthy dependence on them.

We need to find a more sustainable solution. Given its potential to affect our lives and given the fact that in a modern society stress is largely unavoidable, it would be far better to prepare our body so that we are better able to withstand it, that our body is in a better condition to get through it.

This requires two approaches:

Firstly, it is important that our body has some familiarity with stress. To live a stress-free existence would mean that we would be weak and exposed when we do encounter a stressful situation. We need to ensure that stress does not come as a total shock to us. We must be able to recognise it for what it is and be confident that our body is able to deal with it.

Secondly, we must keep our body in good condition so that it is better able to cope with stress when it does arise. This effectively means eating healthily, exercising and relaxing. Stress is something that we need to train for. The better our condition then the better will be our performance in handling a stressful situation.

Undoubtedly, stress affects people in different ways. Some of us are better able to cope with stress than others. Some people even claim that they thrive on stress; that stress brings out the best of them. Others have the ability to “zone out” from stress. They can switch off completely from one activity to move to something different. This ability to take a “time out” from stress enables the body to recuperate. It is then much more able to withstand the stress when it reencounters it.

One of our great anomalies is that as society advances, as we strive for a better standard of living, the one area that too many of us tend to overlook in considering our quality of life is the stress we put ourselves under. So often, in our endeavour to achieve in other areas of our life (financial, emotional, employment…) we will put ourselves through great stresses and strains. It would seem that our priorities are misplaced.

Given that stress is the most significant determinant of our main cause of death – heart failure – we certainly need to take more steps to alleviate its impact and to give it the priority it deserves.