Here at The YMCA of Greater Toronto, we respect and admire the expert advice provided by our partners at The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. That’s why we’re excited to bring you even more great reading material written by their team! In this next piece, Heart and Stroke breaks down how stress can impact our health and what we can do to manage the “bad” stress in our lives.

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s response to a real or perceived threat. That response — which can include a racing heart, tense muscles, and sweating — is meant to get you ready to act and get out of harm’s way. Stress can be helpful, but too much stress can harm your health and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

There is “good” stress and “bad” stress. Good stress can be managed. It can stimulate you to get things done. You can handle good stress.

But “bad” stress, which can last for hours, days, weeks, or more, can be dangerous to your health. Bad stress feels different than good stress. It can make you break out in a cold sweat, make your heartbeat furiously, scare you, and make you feel sick.

Your perceptions, thoughts, and actions can make a big difference in turning bad stress into good stress. By understanding your personality and your reactions to stressful situations, you can learn to cope better.

How does stress affect the risk of heart disease and stroke?

There are undeniable links between heart disease, stroke, and stress.

Stress can cause the heart to work harder, increase blood pressure, and increase sugar and fat levels in the blood. These things, in turn, can increase the risk of clots forming and travelling to the heart or brain, causing a heart attack or stroke.

If you feel stressed, it can be hard to lead a healthy lifestyle. Instead of using exercise to relieve stress, you might overeat, eat unhealthy foods, drink too much alcohol, or smoke. These behaviours, in turn, can increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

Responding to stress with anger can also make matters worse. Anger increases your heart rate and your blood pressure, putting you at risk of a heart attack. People who are prone to anger are also more likely to turn to unhealthy behaviours.

Having a serious health event — like a heart attack, stroke, or being diagnosed with an illness — can also be stressful. And that stress can slow down the recovery process or even create health problems that weren’t there before.

Understanding stress

To deal with your stress, you need to recognize when you feel stress and how it affects you. Examine the causes of your stress, your thoughts, how you feel, and how you respond.

What is a stressor?

Stress-provoking situations are called stressors. They are all around us, almost all the time.

Stressors can be major life events such as losing a loved one, changing or losing a job, moving, divorce, and most recently, a major stressor we are all experiencing: a pandemic.

Stressors can also be routine events, like traffic jams, work pressures, or family responsibilities.

And they can be ongoing pressures: not being able to afford food, not being able to find a job, or not being able to secure affordable housing.

If you can identify your stressors, you can start to learn how to deal with them.

The stress response

Here’s how your body reacts to stress.

Stage 1: Mobilization of energy

Your body reacts to a sudden, frightening stressor such as narrowly avoiding a car accident. This is called primary stress.

Or, you can deliberately enter a stressful situation, such as going for a job interview. This is secondary stress.

In both cases, you may feel the following symptoms:

  • your heart rate increases
  • you breathe rapidly, in short gasps
  • you experience a cold sweat
  • you have butterflies in your stomach. Maybe you have indigestion or no appetite at all
  • you feel dizzy or lightheaded

Stage 2: Consumption energy

If you don’t recover from Stage 1, your body will begin to release stored sugars and fats, consuming vital resources. As a result, you may:

  • feel driven and under pressure
  • become exhausted to the point of fatigue
  • overeat or have a poor diet
  • experience anxiety or tension
  • have difficulty concentrating
  • suffer illnesses, such as colds and flu
  • increase unhealthy behaviours

Stage 3: Exhaustion

If your stress doesn’t go away, it can become chronic. Your body will need more energy than it can produce, and you could develop a serious illness, such as:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • high blood pressure
  • mental illness

Or, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • insomnia (difficulty sleeping)
  • errors in judgement
  • personality changes

There are many great tools for managing stress right here on The Bright Spot.

Try our activities page for online group fitness classes or social events. Or you can read more about ways to integrate mindfulness and meditation into your day.

Thanks to our partners at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada for their expert advice. Look out for more relevant information on our site, or visit theirs for more details.