Stress

Man snapping a pencil in half

Stress alone won’t cause heart and circulatory diseases.

But it’s linked to unhealthy habits that may increase your risk.

What is stress?

Stress is our body’s response to pressures from challenging situations in life. It can be a feeling of being overwhelmed or under pressure. 

It’s normal to feel like this sometimes and a certain amount of stress can be healthy. But if you’re feeling like this more and more over time and you’re struggling to cope, it’s time to make some changes.

Stress itself isn’t a mental health condition, but it’s a sign that something is wrong. 

What's the difference between stress and anxiety?

Stress and anxiety can have similar symptoms so it can be hard to spot the difference. 

Stress can be your body’s response to a trigger and is likely to be short-term. Typical triggers could be a job interview or a busy day at work. 

Anxiety can be caused by stress. It’s a long-term feeling that usually doesn’t go away quickly.

Anxiety can affect your ability to go to work, socialise, leave your home and cope with everyday life.

Learn more about anxiety.  

How do I know if I’m stressed?

Our minds and bodies have ways of letting us know if stress is becoming too much. Stress can affect you physically, emotionally and change your behaviour. 

Emotional symptoms include:

  • feeling upset and tearful
  • feeling scared, anxious, panicked or worried
  • getting easily angry and having a ‘short fuse’
  • feeling alone or hopeless
  • feeling numb and uninterested in life.

Physical symptoms include:

  • being aware of your heart beating fast (palpitations)
  • dry mouth
  • headaches, odd pains, feeling dizzy or sick
  • tiredness or trouble sleeping
  • poor appetite or comfort eating
  • sudden weight loss or gain.

Behavioural symptoms include:

  • skin picking 
  • nail biting 
  • frequent bad temper and lack of patience.

What causes stress?

Recognising and understanding what’s making you stressed is the first step to reducing your stress levels.

Stress is usually caused by events or situations in your life. It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what’s causing your stress as it could be a build-up of lots of little events or one big one. 

Common causes of stress include:

  • work 
  • major life events 
  • change 
  • relationships and family life 
  • loneliness
  • money worries.

How does stress increase your risk of heart and circulatory diseases?

Stress alone won’t cause a heart and circulatory disease. But it is linked to unhealthy habits that can increase your risk. 

You may be more likely to turn to unhealthy habits such as smoking, eating comfort food that’s typically high in fat or sugar, drinking too much alcohol or not being physically active

In the moment, these things can temporarily reduce your stress. But if you do too much of them in the long run, it can damage your heart health.

Does stress cause high blood pressure?

It’s normal for your blood pressure to increase for a short time if you’re feeling stressed. 

When you’re stressed your body releases hormones like adrenaline, the ‘fight or flight’ hormone. Adrenaline makes your heart beat faster and your blood pressure rise as a way of helping your body cope with the situation. 

Once stress has passed, your blood pressure should go back to normal. 

Unhealthy habits linked to stress, like eating unhealthily and drinking too much alcohol can cause long-term high blood pressure

High blood pressure can damage your heart, major organs and arteries over time. This damage can increase your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases.

Can stress cause a heart attack?

Stress alone doesn’t cause a heart attack. But if you cope with stress by turning to unhealthy habits like smoking or eating junk food, your risk increases.

This is because these unhealthy habits can lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. These are risk factors that increase your risk of heart and circulatory diseases such as heart attack and stroke.

Learn more about risk factors for heart and circulatory diseases.

How can I deal with stress?

Aim to eat healthily and avoid reaching for junk food as its effects are short lasting and will make you feel worse in the long run. 

Try doing something active like going for a walk or getting some fresh air when you’re feeling stressed, it can really help. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins which trigger a positive feeling in the body and makes you feel better.    

Try to avoid:

  • Drinking alcohol. Alcohol can make stressful feelings more intense and end up making you feel much worse
  • Smoking. People often say this calms their nerves, but the nicotine and other chemicals in a cigarette make the heart beat faster and increases your blood pressure.

As the situations that trigger stress are often outside of our control, it can sometimes be hard to prevent. 

You can’t always change what’s happening around you, but you might be able to find ways to make things easier. Think about what you can change, and what you can’t. 

For example, if your morning commute makes you feel stressed, but walking your dog makes you feel relaxed, try to get off your bus or train a stop early on the way to work to build a short walk into your day. 

Alongside making some small changes to your lifestyle, you could also try some tools to help you cope with stress. For example:

  • Mindfulness.
  • Meditation.
  • Yoga.
  • Chatting to friends or family.
  • Making lists to organise your thoughts. 

There are plenty of videos available on Youtube of yoga classes, guided meditations and mindfulness sessions. These are all free to access.

If you have a smartphone or tablet, there are also plenty of free apps that can help you with relaxation and meditation. You can find mental health apps and tools in the NHS apps library.

The NHS also produces mental wellbeing audio guides on a variety of topics including unhelpful thinking and sleep problems. You can listen to them here

When should I get help with stress?

If you don’t think you can cope with your stress, or you’re worried you may become depressed or anxious, it’s time to make an appointment with your GP.

Your GP may refer you to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or talk about other options like medication. 

Alternatively, you can use an NHS CBT service. Find your nearest psychological therapy service

Further information and support

  • If you need urgent help with your mental health, contact the Samaritans for free on 116 123. 
  • Mind is a mental health charity that provides support, information and advice. Visit their website
  • Try Elefriends, an online community run by Mind, to chat with others experiencing stress.
  • Call our Heart Helpline at 0300 330 3311 to speak to one of our Cardiac Nurses.
  • If stress is causing insomnia (problems sleeping), read our Heart Matters article about insomnia for advice. 
  • Learn more about the link between meditation, mindfulness and heart disease and check out a meditation mix in this Heart Matters article.

Want to know more?

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Understanding stress

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Eat better

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