Stress and Cardiovascular Disease

Recently, a large population-based study comparing siblings with and without stress disorders found that stressed individuals were much more likely to have a serious cardiovascular disease with an onset before 50 years old (Hong, et. al, 2019).

Individuals with more significant stress suffered more significant cardiovascular problems. The risks of acute and serious cardiovascular problems (e.g., heart attack), were the greatest near the period of time around the onset of the stress disorder.

So, the first 6 months after a stressful event is a “high-risk” window. What does this mean? If you are encountering high levels of chronic stress or have just suffered an acute high-stress event, your heart health is more likely to suffer. When we encounter a threat, the body responds by releasing stress hormones (e.g., cortisol, adrenaline, etc.), accelerating heart and respiration rate, resulting in that “stressed” feeling.

This response helps the human body deal with a predator who might be chasing us. However, in our modern society, these stress responses are not so helpful because we encounter relatively few animal predators (e.g., tigers are not generally chasing us through the jungle). However, we encounter problems during which staying calm and responding thoughtfully are usually more helpful. For example, when your boss (the predator in this situation) confronts you with a problem with your project, you are not likely to physically fight or physically run-away (the fight or flight system isn’t helpful here). You are more likely to be well-served by taking a breath and attempting to engage in logical thoughts in order to deal with your boss and the situation presented to you.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps clients identify the thoughts and behaviors that are no longer serving them well. When encountering high-stress situations, people are likely to use more mistakes in thinking, resulting in more suffering. The goal of CBT is to help you develop a pattern of thinking and doing that works and that is logical. In the case of an acute stressor (e.g., the death of a loved one, involvement in a high-stress job, the lack of support in new and challenging situations, a traumatic attack or assault, etc.), CBT involves learning how to integrate the traumatic/stressful situation into your own narrative about your life, which many of us need a little help with. The first step is to identify the types of mistakes in thinking that you might habitually make (e.g., black-and-white thinking, magnification, discounting the positive, mind-reading, fortune-telling, etc.).

Once you and your therapist have identified your typical mistakes, the next step is to understand how that mistake in thinking might be affecting the way you feel (e.g., angry, sad, scared, disgusted) and what you do in that situation (e.g., retreat, engage in conflict, insult others, etc.). Next, you and your therapist will learn to challenge your typical ways of thinking and determine if a more logical or helpful way of looking at the situation would work. Looking at the situation in a different way can result in feeling better and acting in a way that improves your chances for success. CBT also involves the client practicing these techniques at home so that you can learn how to have more logical and helpful thoughts on a daily basis.

Dr. Calbeck has extensive training and experience in providing CBT. Make your appointment today to reduce stress and improve your psychological and physical health.

Huan Song, H., Fang, F., Arnberg, F.K., Mataix-Cols, D., Fernández de la Cruz, L., Almqvist, C., Fall, K., Lichtenstein, P., Thorgeirsson, & G., Valdimarsdóttir, U.A. (2019). Stress-related disorders and risk of cardiovascular disease: population-based, sibling controlled cohort study. BMJ (British Medical Journal), vol 365.

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305-674-1314
300 W. 41st Street Suite 213
Miami Beach, FL 33140

© 2019 Kaia Calbeck, Ph.D.