Stress Less: Reduce Health Risks to Maintain Overall, Vascular Health

Society for Vascular Surgery: It’s Never Been More Important to Manage Stress Levels

ROSEMONT, Ill., April 20, 2020 – Americans’ stress levels are through the roof – from healthcare workers on the front lines to essential service workers to seniors at home to parents coping with upside-down work schedules and e-learning. April marks Stress Awareness Month, making it a fitting time to understand the impact of stress on the body and address stress management techniques to help navigate through difficult times and maintain health in the process.

Just last year, an annual Gallup poll reported that Americans are among the most stressed people in the world. Americans reported feeling stress, anger and worry at the highest levels in a decade, according to the survey. Given the impact of COVID-19, it is being reported the country’s stress levels are more on the rise. Nearly half of Americans are anxious about the possibility of getting COVID-19, and more than one-third of Americans say coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health according to the American Psychiatric Association.

“Stress can have a profound impact on the body and lead to the adoption of negative behaviors that affect one’s overall health long-term,” said Kim Hodgson, MD, president of the Society for Vascular Surgery (SVS). “It’s critical for Americans to recognize the symptoms of stress and to adopt healthy daily routines that mitigate the symptoms and address the underlying stressor.”

Impact of Stress. Acute stress is a physiological demand placed on the body when a person has to cope or adjust. While stress can be essential in keeping an individual alert, a continued period of stress can have an immense impact. According to the National Institutes of Health, long-term activation of the stress-response system can disrupt almost all of the body’s processes, increase the risk for numerous health problems and prematurely age the immune system, enhancing the risk of illness as well as age-related diseases. More visible responses to stress could include headache, back strain or exhaustion, making people feel irritable, less focused or angry. Studies have linked stress to changes in the way blood clots, which makes a heart attack more likely. People are also more likely to have heart disease, chest pain, or irregular heartbeats. The resulting factors of stress mirror the main risk factors of vascular disease including heart attacks or stroke, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, being overweight, an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise.

“The way you handle stress matters,” continued Dr. Hodgson. “If you respond to it in unhealthy ways such as by smoking, overeating, drinking more or not exercising, it can make matters worse. On the other hand, if you make time to exercise, relax and connect with people, to decompress, it can make a positive difference in your body and overall mental health.”

Manage Your Stress. It is OK to accept that some things are outside your control. Here are a few ways to control stress levels:

  • Stay Connected. Even if it is virtually or over the phone, find time to reach out to other people, schedule time each day to speak with someone in your family or friend circle.
  • Decompress and Unplug. Just as important as giving yourself moments during the day to stay in touch, also plan to give yourself time to detach and relax. Avoid emails, internet and news each day – even if just for 30 minutes. Find a quiet place to practice breathing, meditate, pray, stretch or reflect on positive things in your life. Inward-focused thought and deep breathing has been shown to reduce heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure.
  • Stay Active. Physical activity releases mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins. Exercising can release stress and can protect against heart disease by lowering blood pressure and helping maintain a healthy weight. There are countless free on-demand routines to help incorporate physical activity from home.
  • Maintain a Healthy Diet. It is easy to turn to comfort food or increase the amount you drink as a way to cope, but these things negatively affect the mind and body. Remember to integrate fruits, vegetables and water throughout the day. Meal-delivery services that focus on the right combination of ingredients and portion size also can help you more effortlessly plan a good daily routine.
  • Stay Positive. Research shows that people with disease who maintain an upbeat attitude are less likely to die than those who are more negative. Laughter has been found to lower levels of stress hormones, reduce inflammation in the arteries and increase "good" HDL cholesterol. Staying positive can help give an entirely new outlook on a situation.

Acute stress is temporary, and finding ways to manage it can impact overall physical and mental health. For more information about ways to manage your overall and vascular health, visit https://vascular.org/patient-resources. Follow the SVS on Facebook @VascularHealth, Twitter @VascularSVS and Instagram @societyforvascularsurgery.