Stress: Don’t Worry, Be Happy or It May Kill YouBy | On Oct 08, 2012
Stress drives many actions. It can allow us to prevail when the odds are against us. Stress causes physiological responses; acutely precipitating a “fight or flight” response among many other effects. However over time, a high level of chronic stress can contribute to the development of physiological pathological conditions. Stress, particularly if prolonged, can affect our mental health as well. This of course, begs the question: what is stress?
Stress, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone’s stress threshold is different. What is perceived as stress is in reality; stress. I am often asked if stress can be associated with the development of cardiovascular disease. Long periods of chronic stress, particularly work related and marital strains are well known factors in the development of cardiovascular disease. Acute mental and emotional stress can trigger angina and acute myocardial infarction (heart attacks).
However, little is known about the effects of stress once someone suffers a heart attack. A recent study examined this very question, examining over 4,000 survivors of acute myocardial infarction across the United States[i]. These patients were evaluated using a perceived stress scale. Those who had a moderate to high level of perceived stress had a 42% increased two year mortality; 12.9% versus 8.6%. This association persisted after accounting for other known clinical factors including revascularization status. Interestingly, it was found that moderate to high levels of perceived stress over the month before the heart attack were associated with an increased risk of dying after the heart attack occurred, despite the fact that these patients with increased perceived stress levels were younger and less ill than those suffering less perceived stress. Upon surviving the acute heart attack, those with higher stress levels suffered a greater degree of longer term poor health outcomes than those with lower stress levels.
While the association is clear, the mechanism between increased stress perception and increased cardiovascular morbidity and mortality remains unexplained. What is clear is that perception is reality, at least when it comes to stress. Perhaps it is more than simply the anti-oxidants in a glass of wine; or the healthful bounty of vitamins and minerals in a delicious meal prepared freshly from scratch. Perhaps it is a moment of reflection, a pause and deflection of that endless barrage of issues our modern lives hurl at us. A meal, a moment filled with love and kindness is what food can penultimately become. Dining at its essence, like our lives, is an experiential process. So breathe, relax and enjoy. Like the wind and the tide, it’s a healing prescription no doctor can prescribe.
[i] (Arnold, Smolderen, Buchanan, Li, & .Spertus, 2012)
Arnold, S. V., Smolderen, K. G., Buchanan, D. M., Li, Y., & .Spertus, J. A. (2012). Perceived Stress in Myocardial InfarctionLong-Term Mortality and Health Status Outcomes. J Am Coll Cardiol., doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2012.06.044 .