We all know that long-term stress isn’t good for us. It can cause health issues such as insomnia and digestive issues, which many of us have experienced first-hand at some point. But can stress cause a stroke? The short answer is yes, research shows that stress is a major risk factor for stroke.
You’re about to discover how stress increases the risk of stroke, and what steps you can take to help reduce stress and improve your overall health.
Table of contents
- How Can Stress Cause a Stroke?
- Show Me the Statistics: Stress and Stroke Risk
- What Are the Signs of Chronic Stress?
- Ways to Help Manage Chronic Stress
- Understanding the Link Between Stress and Stroke
How Can Stress Cause a Stroke?
When a stroke occurs, the supply of blood in the brain is compromised by either a clogged or burst artery. This life-threatening event requires swift treatment to restore blood flow in the brain, minimize brain damage, and save the person’s life.
Before a stroke occurs, there is often preexisting damage to the circulatory system, such as weakened or narrowed arteries. This is where the link between stroke and stress occurs: chronic stress can contribute to arterial damage and increase the risk of stroke. But exactly how does that happen?
When the body is under stress, it releases stress hormones like cortisol. These hormones help the body retain water, sodium, and sugar which help keep blood pressure up and ensure the body has enough fuel to function.
While this is helpful for functioning in stressful situations, it can cause negative health effects when the body remains in this state for prolonged periods of time.
Long-term elevated blood pressure and blood sugar can eventually cause hypertension and diabetes, respectively, which are two leading causes of stroke.
Furthermore, chronic stress can cause unhealthy coping behaviors such as smoking, which is another leading cause of stroke. It narrows the arteries, thickens blood, and increases the risk of clotting.
Show Me the Statistics: Stress and Stroke Risk
Now that you understand how stress and stroke are linked, let’s take a closer look at some studies and statistics.
Here are some statistics that show how chronic stress can eventually lead to a stroke if left unmanaged:
- High blood pressure. When chronic stress leads to high blood pressure, it can weaken the arteries. A 2015 study showed that 77% of people that have a first stroke have high blood pressure.
- Blood pressure reactivity. When blood pressure increases in reaction to stress, it’s called blood pressure reactivity. A 2001 study found that men with exaggerated blood pressure reactivity had 72% greater risk of stroke. Exaggerated blood pressure reactivity is also linked to atherosclerosis and hypertension, which are two stroke risk factors.
- Stressful habits. People with stressful habits such as “type A personality behaviors” and “high consumption of energy-providing drinks” are at an increased risk of stroke, according to a 2012 study.
- Work-related stress. A long-term study of over 5,000 individuals found that people with high stress intensity almost doubled their risk of a fatal stroke compared to non-stressed individuals.
- Diabetes. When blood sugar remains elevated in response to chronic stress, it can contribute to diabetes, which is another leading cause of stroke. Individuals with diabetes are twice as likely to have a stroke compared to individuals without diabetes, according to the American Stroke Association.
The top 5 leading causes of stroke in America include hypertension, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, and diabetes. As you just learned, studies have directly linked chronic stress with hypertension and diabetes.
While no significant studies have directly linked stress with the other leading causes of stroke, there are possible indirect connections. For example, chronic stress can cause an individual to make poor dietary choices, which can contribute to high cholesterol and obesity.
Now that you understand how stress can increase your risk of stroke, let’s discuss how to identify signs of chronic stress.
What Are the Signs of Chronic Stress?
Some stress is normal and even psychologically beneficial. In these cases, the effects often only last a few minutes or hours and go away once the stressful event has passed. However, prolonged stress, or chronic stress, can produce physical and psychological symptoms.
Some well-studied symptoms of chronic stress include:
- Digestive issues. Stress has been linked to the cause and worsening of digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome and constipation.
- Insomnia. Stress has been shown to increase the risk of insomnia, which can contribute to even more stress and worsening insomnia in a vicious downward cycle.
- Changes in libido. Many studies have linked high stress levels with lowered sex drive and dissatisfaction in relationships.
- Changes in appetite. Some people tend to eat more when they are stressed and others tend to eat less. Individuals that experience an increase in appetite tend to choose comfort foods over healthy foods.
- Headaches. In a study of people with chronic headaches, it was found that stressful events preceded a headache 44% of the time.
The most common sources of chronic stress include challenging relationships, financial difficulties, and high-pressure jobs. Of these sources, work-related stress has the most evidence directly linking it to an increased risk of stroke.
If any of these situations or symptoms sound familiar, you may be suffering from chronic stress. Next we will look at ways to help manage it.
Ways to Help Manage Chronic Stress
Since there is a strong correlation between stress and stroke, it’s important to find ways to reduce stress and improve your overall health.
Here are a few helpful, evidence-based ways to reduce stress:
1. Exercise several times per week
Exercise is an excellent coping mechanism for stress because its benefits are twofold. First, exercise helps boost endorphins (the brain’s “feel good” chemicals) and combat the emotional effects of stress. Secondly, exercise helps improve your cardiovascular health and thus help protect your body from the harmful effects of stress, such as high blood pressure.
How much exercise is enough to make a difference though? The American Heart Association recommends moderate physical activity for at least 40 minutes, three to four times per week, to reduce hypertension.
If you’re able to, try exercising outdoors, as spending time in green spaces has also been linked to reduced stress levels.
2. Try half a minute of deep breathing
Meditation and deep breathing techniques help lower blood pressure and improve your response to stress. Even just taking 6 deep breaths over 30 seconds was shown to reduce blood pressure. If you struggle with work-related stress, taking just a 30 second break to do some deep breathing can help. Various phone apps and even smart watches have deep breathing cues and visuals to help with this.
3. Keep an eye on caffeine intake
A cup of coffee in the morning is arguably good for your health, but try to avoid drinking too much or too late. Too much caffeine — whether from coffee, energy drinks, or something else — can cause jittery, anxious feelings which may contribute to stress. Also, drinking caffeine too late in the day may contribute to insomnia. If you struggle with anxiety or insomnia, pay attention to the dosage and timing of your caffeine intake.
4. Focus on what you can control (not what you can’t)
Feeling like you don’t have control over your work can significantly contribute to your stress-related risk of stroke. A large study found that jobs with high demand and low control, such as a restaurant server, were associated with a 22% increased risk of stroke compared with low demand and high control jobs.
It’s not always possible to change jobs or jump into a low demand career, though. But the good news is that you can control how you think and respond in these situations. By focusing on what you can control and managing your thoughts, you can help limit the harmful effects of work-related stress. Try talking to friends, family members, or a therapist to help manage your thoughts and stress level.
Understanding the Link Between Stress and Stroke
Chronic stress directly impacts the cardiovascular system, which damages the arteries when left unmanaged. Vascular damage can eventually lead to a stroke, which is a medical emergency caused by a clogged or burst artery in the brain.
Chronic stress most commonly comes from work, relationships, or financial struggle. While we cannot always control these situations, we can control how we respond. Choosing activities like exercise and deep breathing can help reduce stress levels and, as a result, reduce your risk of stroke.