Most people already understand that high blood pressure and high cholesterol increase a person’s risk of stroke. But can stress cause a stroke?
The answer is somewhat complicated. Studies have shown that chronic stress can significantly increase stroke risk. One study in particular found that people who experienced long-term stress were four times more likely to suffer a stroke compared to those not under chronic stress.
However, people who have only intermittent periods of high stress do not appear to have a greater risk of stroke.
This page will help you better understand the connection between stress and stroke and what you can do to reduce your stroke risk.
How Can Stress Cause a Stroke?
Stress affects the entire body in numerous ways. It does this by causing the brain to release certain chemicals that prepare the body to face a threat. The two primary chemicals released under stress are cortisol and epinephrine:
- Cortisol causes the body to retain water, sodium, and sugar to help keep blood pressure up and ensure the body has enough fuel to function.
- Epinephrine increases heart rate and blood pressure to pump blood to organs.
While these chemicals serve a vital purpose during dangerous situations, they can unfortunately have a harmful effect on the body if stress persists.
For example, persistent high cortisol levels increase salt retention, which leads to hypertension (high blood pressure) and high cholesterol levels. High cholesterol and blood pressure in turn both increase your risk of stroke.
In addition, high blood pressure from chronic stress can increase the risk of a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when blood vessels rupture.
Therefore, it is clear that stress is linked to stroke in several ways. However, short-term stress does not appear to cause a significant risk increase. In addition, people who are otherwise in good health have a lower risk than those who already have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Signs of Stress
Everyone experiences stress, but sometimes the symptoms of stress are hard to recognize. Chronic stress in particular can cause physical symptoms that seem entirely unrelated. As a result, many people do not even realize they are under stress until they have a serious health scare.
Some common physical signs of stress include:
- Low energy
- Stomach problems such as diarrhea, constipation, and vomiting
- Tense muscles
- Chest pain
- Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
- Shaking and/or cold sweaty hands
Stress can also cause cognitive and emotional problems such as difficulty concentrating and becoming easily frustrated.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, you may be suffering from chronic stress. To reduce your risk of stroke then, it’s crucial to get your stress under control.
Distinguishing Stress from Stroke
While stress can increase a person’s risk of stroke, it can also cause symptoms that mimic a stroke. Some symptoms that both stress and stroke share include:
- Vision problems
As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if your symptoms are caused by stress or something more serious.
In general though, stroke symptoms such as headaches arise suddenly, whereas stress symptoms come more gradually. Therefore, if you experience a sudden piercing headache or numbness, call a doctor immediately.
Prevention and Treatment
Since there is a strong correlation between stress and stroke, it’s important to find ways to reduce stress. Reducing stress can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, which will also reduce your risk of stroke.
The following are a few helpful ways to do this:
Consistent exercise strengthens the muscles of your heart, which allows it to pump easier and therefore lower your blood pressure. This will in turn reduce your stress.
That is because blood pressure and stress form a vicious cycle, where both fuel the other. For example, stress causes blood pressure to rise, causing the person to feel agitated and stressed, which only further raises blood pressure.
Therefore, to break this cycle, you must lower your blood pressure. And one of the most effective ways to do this is to exercise. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends moderate physical activity for at least 40 minutes, three to four times per week, to reduce hypertension.
Besides lowering your blood pressure, exercise releases chemicals called endorphins which boost your mood and lower cortisol production. This will also reduce stress and minimize your risk of stroke.
2. Change Your Diet
A healthy diet can also lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, which will reduce your stroke risk. Specifically, you should increase potassium intake and cut down on sodium.
Potassium helps lessen the effect of salt in your body and eases tension in the blood vessels. Some foods that are naturally high in potassium include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Reduced fat milk and yogurt
In addition, try to avoid certain anxiety-inducing foods, which can increase your feelings of stress and raise your blood pressure. These foods include caffeine, artificial sugars, alcohol, or fried foods. While you might not need to completely eliminate these from your diet, try not to eat them too frequently.
3. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness and meditation techniques are another effective way to lower stress.
Mindfulness simply means staying mentally present to your surroundings and the present moment. This helps you ignore the constant chatter that our brains normally produce, which is often the source of stress and anxiety.
To stay mentally present, it helps to have a point of focus that pulls your attention to your body, such as your breath.
Focusing on your breath makes it much more difficult for anxious thoughts to slip in. It also gives you a chance to step back and observe your feelings of stress with a clear mind.
If exercise and diet changes do not help you reduce stress, you may need to work with a counselor. Therapists can teach you how to cope with stress and uncover things that might be triggering your anxiety.
One helpful cognitive-behavioral technique that some therapists use is Acceptance and Commitment therapy. This therapy enables patients to overcome any negative thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their stress.
By learning how to defuse these thoughts, you can often prevent stress from taking hold, which will lower your blood pressure and reduce your stroke risk.
Your therapist might also recommend some medications to decrease your anxiety such as certain anti-depressants.
Understanding the Link Between Stress and Stroke
Chronic stress can and does increase a person’s risk of stroke. While it does not directly cause a stroke, stress does lead to higher blood pressure and higher cholesterol levels, both of which make strokes more likely to occur.
Therefore, to prevent a stroke, it is crucial to take steps to reduce stress. Some of the best ways to do that include regular exercise, diet changes, and therapy.
We hope this article helps you better understand the relationship between stress and stroke. While it is impossible to completely eliminate stress, practicing stress management techniques can increase your happiness and improve your overall health.