Most cardiologists agree that there is a strong relationship between how stressed a person is and the state of their cardiac health; the more stress a person has in their life, the more likelihood there is that person will experience coronary heart disease (CHD). The exact nature of the relationship between stress itself and the buildup of plaque in the blood vessels that characterizes coronary heart disease eludes scientists, but they're pretty sure that such a relationship exists. Stress is thus considered a significant risk factor that increases the likelihood of developing coronary heart disease, in the same way that smoking or having an increase in the cholesterol levels of the blood is.
But a new study in the American Journal of Cardiology indicates that the very belief that one is stressed may lead to a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease or dying from it.
So perceived stress is as bad for you as real stress?
Very possibly. The research involved a review of six previous studies, which included subjects whose ages ranged from a low of 43 years to a high of 74 years. In each of the studies, the subjects were asked detailed questions about their levels of perceived stress. For example, they were asked, "How stressed do you feel?" or "How often do you feel stress?" The study participants were then tracked for a follow-up period of 14 years, during which their hospital admissions for CHD, their numbers of heart attacks, and their numbers of deaths as a result of coronary heart disease were recorded, and weighed against their self-reported levels of stress.
The findings of the review suggest that those who self-assessed their levels of stress as "high" had a 27% higher risk of being diagnosed with CHD, being hospitalized as the result of CHD, or of dying from CHD. The older the study participants, the stronger this relationship between perceived stress and their incidences of coronary heart disease became. Study author Dr. Safiya Richardson says of the study, "These findings are significant because they are applicable to nearly everyone. The key takeaway is that how people feel is important for their heart health, so anything they can do to reduce stress may improve their heart health in the future."
How can I tell how stressed I feel?
Well, one simple way to determine your levels of perceived stress is to take Cohen's Perceived Stress test, available here. It's a set of 10 simple questions about whether you feel certain things, which you answer on a scale of 0 to 4 according to how often you feel them; 0 being "Never," and 4 being "Very Often." Add up all of the resulting points, and you get a Perceived Stress Level score ranging from 0 to 40. Scores of 13 are considered average, and scores of 20 are common in high-stress professions. Scores above 20 are generally considered indications of feeling highly stressed.
What can I do to reduce the levels of stress I feel?
If you wind up scoring highly on this test, or even if you don't and you're just generally interested in reducing the levels of stress you feel, here are some suggestions from experts that might help:
• Take care of your health. Nothing new here – stop smoking, lose weight, get more exercise, and eat a healthy diet. Not being sick is relaxing.
• Laugh more. Take periodic Comedy Central breaks, or whatever makes you laugh. A 1989 study showed that taking periodic "mirth breaks" significantly lowered blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
• Read a book. Seriously. One recent study showed that a mere six minutes of reading allows most people to relax and "de-stress." Other activities that this study reported as relieving feelings of stress were taking a tea or coffee break, taking a walk, and listening to favorite music.
• Take up gardening. Several studies have indicated that spending some time diggin' in the dirt reduces perceived stress. In a 2008 study of caregivers to Alzheimers patients (which can tend to be stress-inducing), over 60% reported feeling less stressed after a short break spent tending their garden.
• Eat some chocolate. Preferably dark chocolate, which has additional benefits for your heart, but most forms of chocolate reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your blood.