How to deal with stress

Stress is a common experience, especially when we're going through health problems. Lucy Trevallion examines how stress affects us and shares ways to face it.

Stressed woman

Nearly half of British adults feel stressed every day or every few days, a recent survey suggests. Having heart problems, or seeing a loved one go through them, can be a huge source of stress. You might feel overwhelmed, find it difficult to concentrate, become irritable, or have physical symptoms such as back pain. But there are ways to tackle it.

What is stress?

“Stress is when you feel unable to cope with a perceived pressure,” explains Professor Stephen Palmer, Director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at City University of London.

If stress is prolonged, it becomes negative, because you continue to pump out a hormone called cortisol

Stress can also have physical effects. Dr Valeria Mondelli, a consultant psychiatrist and Senior Clinical Lecturer at King’s College London, explains that your body responds to stressful experiences by releasing hormones that make your heart beat faster. Your blood pressure rises, you breathe more rapidly and you might start to sweat. This is known as the ‘fight or flight response’.

If this is temporary, it can make your brain sharper and help you react faster. But if stress is prolonged, it becomes negative, because you continue to pump out a hormone called cortisol.

“In the long term, having high levels of cortisol can affect the immune system, which affects new brain cells and the networks between them,” says Dr Mondelli. “It can lead to low mood, low energy, low motivation or problems with your sleep.” It can also raise the risk of a viral infection, research has found.

Stress and heart problems

Having a heart condition can shape your life in many ways, so stress may come from multiple sources. It can be caused by a big change, for example an unexpected health problem, or feeling out of control, which is very common when your health dictates what you can or can’t do. Stress can also come from money worries, which can occur if your health has led you to take early retirement or lose your job, or if you’ve stopped work to care for someone.

“Almost invariably, people with a heart condition or their loved ones are going to be feeling stressed to some degree,” explains Dr Mike Capek, a South Manchester GP and Anxiety UK adviser.

There’s no firm evidence that stress is a cause of heart problems, but we’re funding research in this area (see box below).

Where to find help

  • If stress is damaging your wellbeing, make an appointment with your GP. They may be able to refer you to cognitive behavioural therapy or a stress management course.
  • Get more information about dealing with stress from the Mind website or by calling 0300 123 3393
  • Download our free booklet Coping with stress.

Chatting over a cup of tea

Ways to deal with stress

Under pressure, people often comfort eat, exercise less, sleep less, drink more alcohol or smoke. Unfortunately, these responses won’t help your stress, or your heart. Slowing down, eating a balanced diet and gentle exercise have been shown to help your mental wellbeing and your heart health.

A Mental Health Foundation survey found that the three most helpful ways of dealing with stress are spending time alone, exercise and hobbies, and talking to loved ones

“It may not be possible to completely avoid stress,” says Dr Mondelli. “But you can identify it and change how you respond to it early enough to stop negative long-term consequences.”

A Mental Health Foundation survey found that the three most helpful ways of dealing with stress are spending time alone, exercise and hobbies, and talking to loved ones.

“Often there’s no substitute for talking to someone,” says Dr Capek. “You feel better for expressing your fears or disappointment and it may trigger finding a solution.”

If you don’t feel you have anyone to turn to, you could join a Heart Support Group or the BHF online community. Volunteering or joining a club may help you build support networks too.

Long-term solutions for stress

The long-term solution will also depend on the cause of your stress. For example, for money worries, you could get financial advice from government-backed charity Money Advice Service. Visit moneyadviceservice.org.uk or call the free helpline on 0800 138 7777.

Dr Capek advises trying to establish a stress-free space – even if it’s a public library or a place where you go for a walk. “Ensure you have your own time in a non-stressful place, even if it’s just 30 minutes a day.”

This may be more difficult for carers. “There’s often the fear of leaving your loved one alone or with someone else, but no one can do a 24/7 job,” says Dr Capek. “Make sure your GP knows you’re a carer, as they may be able to offer additional support, such as specialist nurses or social services you can use. Also, make sure you know the benefits you’re entitled to so there’s less of a financial burden on you.” 

BHF stress research

We’ve funded several studies to help discover how stress itself affects your heart.

In one BHF-funded study, at King’s College London, researchers found people’s heart rate and blood pressure increased when they did a mental arithmetic test, reflecting an increase in oxygen demand by the heart muscle. For those with coronary heart disease, blood flow in the coronary arteries failed to increase to meet that demand, and blood was less able to flow through small vessels in the heart. Although this was only a small study, it tells us more about how mental stress can affect people with heart disease, which could lead to new treatments.

We’ve also funded Professor Thomas Brand and his team at Imperial College London to look at proteins in cell membranes that play a role in how the heart reacts to stress, for example by increasing the heart rate. Understanding how the heart adapts to stress may reveal new ways to treat patients suffering from heart failure or abnormal heart rhythms

 

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