Why You Should Take Stress More Seriously

Stressed out? That could be dangerous. Photo: Troels Graugaard/Getty ImagesIf you’re someone who frequently declares, “I’m so stressed!” then you might want to pay attention to this: Your risk of heart attack could be double that of folks who don't think they're stressed, according to a new study.

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The findings, by French researchers and published Wednesday in the European Heart Journal, showed that people who believe that they are stressed—and that the stress is affecting their health—have more than twice the risk of heart attack as those who don’t feel that way.

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“This indicates that individuals' perception and reality seem to be connected pretty well,” lead author Herman Nabi, of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, told Yahoo! Shine in an email. “In other words, people seem to be aware when stress is affecting their health.”

The researchers analyzed the data of 7,268 men and women from a previous study, the British Whitehall II cohort, based on a questionnaire that asked the following: “To what extent do you consider the stress or pressure that you have experienced in your life has an effect on your health?" Participants chose from answers including “not at all,” “a little,” “moderately,” “a lot,” and “extremely.” They were also asked to rate their stress levels and other factors, including smoking, alcohol intake, diet, exercise and preexisting health conditions such as diabetes.

People who answered the first question with “a lot” or “extremely” had a 2.12 times higher risk of having or dying from a heart attack compared with those who didn’t think stress was affecting their health.

“Our ultimate goal in this research was to demonstrate [the idea that] individuals' perception of [how] stress impacts their own health is valid, and should be considered both in future research and in clinical settings,” Nabi said. “We wanted also to show that responses to stress differ greatly between individuals. In fact, a situation that is stressful for one person might not be stressful for another.”

While the findings may have merit, they offer “nothing new,” according to Dr. Paul Rosch, founder and board chairman of the American Institute of Stress, who is familiar with the study.

“We’ve known for a long time, to quote the Greek philosopher Epictetus, that ‘men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them,’” he told Yahoo! Shine. “You can show definitively that people have a higher rate of heart attack if they feel they have too many demands on them at work or in life, whether it’s true or not. So if you perceive something, it’s as good as the real thing.”

Rosch said he found the new study to be flawed because the participants who said they felt stressed were also more likely to be smokers and to have a baseline of poor health. “It would have been better to have started off with two groups having equivalent health status, and then show that perceived stress correlated with increased coronary events, or deaths, decades later,” he added.

Still, he said, it certainly can’t hurt a person to be mindful of stress levels — as well as of the additional stress those levels may cause, "provided it encourages you to avoid unhealthy habits and improve your quality of life in other ways, but not if it leads you to worry more about things you can't control."

People should just keep in mind that finding an effective way to reduce stress may take some time, since, as Nabi said, individuals react to situations in different ways.

“Things that are very distressing for some might be pleasurable for others, like a steep rollercoaster ride. So there’s nothing that’s a panacea,” Rosch noted. “Running, doing yoga or listening to music might work for some but be dull, boring and stressful for others.”

Bottom line: Find what’s calming for you and stick with it. Your life could depend on it.

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