McGill University’s Centre for Studies on Human Stress at L’Hôpital Louis H. Lafontaine in Montréal is a remarkably helpful resource for those of you who are so chronically stressed day to day that you no longer think this state of being is even abnormal anymore.
Anybody who has undergone ongoing chaos in the workplace, a family health crisis, a divorce, a death in the family, serious financial worries, too darned many deadlines, and many other of life’s realities can recognize the symptoms of chronic stress – but did you know that this low-grade stress is extremely damaging to our hearts?
In fact, the World Health Organization has predicted that by 2020, stress-related disorders like heart disease and depression will be in the top two leading causes of disability in adults. According to the Centre for Studies On Human Stress, there are three distinct stages of chronic stress. See if any of these sound familiar:
Stage 1 : The ‘Pepto Bismol®’ stage
In this early stage of chronic stress, you are repeatedly exposed to situations that activate your stress response, so each time you mobilize energy.
- your heart rate and breathing increases
- your blood sugar levels and blood pressure increase
- your digestion slows
After a few days of interrupted digestion you may start to experience heartburn, diarrhea and/or constipation – hence we call it the Pepto Bismol® stage.
You may also experience some of the following:
- emotional distress: irritability, resentment, anger, anxiety, and a depressed state
- muscular problems: tension headache, back pain, jaw pain, etc.
Stage 2: The ‘Rume’ and Coke stage
Here, things are getting a little out of control and are somewhat chaotic. It seems as though one stressor relentlessly follows the other. The stress response system is constantly activated and constantly extracting stored energy.
You may notice that…
- you abound with nervous energy
- you are constantly worrying and expecting the worst (that’s the ‘ruminating’ of the title)
- you take on too much, are always rushing, and are often late
- you feel overwhelmed and overworked
- you feel over-aroused and short-tempered
- you feel anxious, and/or tense most of the time
- you can’t turn off your mind when you go to bed
- you increase your intake of tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy foods
- your memory starts to fail you
- you often get colds and the flu
Stage 3: The ‘Glass of Water’ Stage
By now, you are living in all-out chronic stress. The glass of water is for all the pills you have to take just to get through the day (and night) after repeated activation of the stress response system. At this stage, your personality can change dramatically.
Some of the most common health problems linked to longterm chronic stress are:
- heart disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol)
When the stress response system is activated, energy is mobilized. But you need to replenish those energy stores. After a while, your body no longer does this efficiently. In the short-run, your body tries to ‘help’ by storing energy in the form of fat in the mid-section. But this added weight is not good for the heart; an apple-shaped waist is considered a key risk factor for heart disease.
Unmanaged chronic stress, especially stress-related anger and hostility, can affect our health. It may cause:
- high blood pressure
- irregular heart rhythms
- damage to our coronary arteries
- higher LDL (bad) cholesterol levels
- the development and progression of coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis)
- a weakened immune system
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: Lots more about stress as a cardiac risk factor – and the significant stress of a cardiac diagnosis – in my book “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017)
- Is Family Stress Hurting Your Heart?
- Women’s Heart Disease and Chronic Stress
- Poor Marriage = Poor Heart Health for Women
- How two cardiologists discovered the Type A personality (and the surprising reasons Big Tobacco helped fund them for decades)