February is American Heart Health Month: Stress, anxiety linked to heart disease

Monarch expert says unplugging and setting boundaries are essential to mental wellness

You don’t have to be tethered to technology 24 hours a day. It’s absolutely OK — and in fact necessary — to unplug when you can, explains Monarch psychiatrist Dr. Sharyn Comeau, M.D.

“Our expectation is to be informed, but not inundated,” she said. “When we are constantly flooded with minutia, we can become overwhelmed and that could lead to anxiety.

A new study by the American Heart Association (AHA) connects high levels of anxiety with stroke and heart disease.

The study is the first in which researchers linked anxiety and stroke independent of other factors such as depression. Anxiety disorders are one of the most prevalent mental health problems, and symptoms include feeling unusually worried, stressed, nervous or tense. According to the AHA, anxiety also increases the risk of heart disease.

“Anxiety can increase blood pressure, which then increases the risks of a stroke or heart disease,” Comeau explained.

Over a 22-year period, researchers studied a nationally representative group of 6,019 people 25-74 years old in the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Study participants completed a series of tests, including medical examinations and psychological questionnaires, to gauge anxiety and depression levels. People in the highest third of anxiety symptoms had a 33 percent higher stroke risk than those with the lowest levels.

Unplug and improve health profile

“With increased use of technology, we no longer have boundaries between our work and home lives. We are working longer hours and may not even realize it. There’s no set time where work ends and relaxation begins,” Comeau explained.

Technology also poses a problem for children. “There is a lot of anxiety and depression with children because they, too, have no boundaries when it comes to connectivity. There is a lot of anxiety and depression because there is no safe place for youth – and with social media added to the equation, there is no downtime for tweens and teens,” Comeau added.

Dr. Comeau said she and her 13-year-old daughter recently took a cruise and made the commitment not to use cellphones. They returned relaxed and realized they didn’t miss out on too much while disconnected. They loved it.

Comeau makes the additional following suggestions for adults and children to help reduce anxiety:

  • Decrease too much caffeine intake
  • Go to bed at the same time each night
  • Refrain technology use (including checking emails) at least two hours before bedtime
  • Maintain a good diet and exercise regularly
  • Drink herbal tea or lots of water
  • Stay away from stressful situations and negative people
  • Seek support from a mental health professional when needed

Another cause of heart disease is smoking. Many people believe that smoking relaxes them, however, the relaxation actually comes from taking a temporary break from a stressful situation, Comeau said. The nicotine actually increases blood pressure and acts as a stimulant.

“It’s taking the break that’s relaxing, not the smoking. Such breaks are necessary, but you just need a healthy habit like walking or drinking tea or water.

Choose healthy alternatives

“Rather than go out for a smoke break, go to the breakroom and make a cup of herbal or green tea,” Comeau suggested. “You’ll be surprised at the positive impact stepping away to get water or a beverage can make during the workday.”

Established in 1958, Monarch is a not-for-profit organization that provides support statewide to thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental illness and substance use disorders. The agency is nationally accredited by The Council on Quality and Leadership (CQL) and certified by The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services as a Critical Access Behavioral Health Agency (CABHA). Monarch operates The Arc of Stanly County, which is a chapter of The Arc of North Carolina and The Arc of the United States. To learn more about how Monarch provides support, please call (866) 272-7826 or visit www.MonarchNC.org.

Posted on: Friday February 12, 2016