Your weight is in check, you exercise three times a week and heart disease doesn't run in your family. So that means you're not going to have any heart disease, right?
Not so fast.
Mental and emotional stress can take nearly as much of a toll on your heart as overloading on red meat seven nights a week.
"Stress revs up our body's normal defense mechanisms against adversity and keeps them at a higher level, creating higher blood pressure, increased risk of atherosclerosis and lower defenses against infections," said Dr. George Bakris, president of the American Society of Hypertension. "Thus, heart attacks and strokes are more common in these people."
When someone is under stress, the body's reaction is to increase adrenaline, which constricts blood vessels and increases your heart rate and blood pressure — this is a normal response to an urgent situation. If the stress is temporary — a scare or a quick need for an immediate response — your body can return to its normal rates soon after the episode is over.
But when stress is unremitting, those reactions continue uninterrupted, and therefore the levels stay higher than normal even when the stress wanes, Bakris said.
But don't stress. There are ways to stay calm regardless of the circumstances. Here are some commonplace situations and how you can help yourself, and your heart, deal with the pressure.
Stressful scenario: Arguments
The science: A study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine tracked more than 1,000 men for about 36 years. Those who got angry quickly were three times more likely to have premature heart disease, and they were five times more likely to have an early heart attack than their peers who weren't so quick to anger.
Stress less: After you've voiced your anger, you need to switch directions. Release your remaining anger efficiently with a good workout — say, a kickboxing or other aerobics class, or a jog outside, said Dr. Isaac Eliaz, integrative specialist and director of the Amitabha Medical Clinic and Healing Center in Sebastopol, Calif. The cardio reduces your stress hormones while increasing your endorphins (happy hormones), which will instantly reduce the tension throughout your body. When you're done working out, watch a sitcom or read something that will make you laugh. A study from researchers at the University of Maryland found that the physical act of laughing makes blood vessels dilate by 22 percent. That produces an increase in blood flow, which in turn reduces your blood pressure immediately, said Dr. Michael Miller, director of the University of Maryland Medical Center for Preventive Cardiology.
Stressful scenario: The football game
The science: Do you get super stressed watching a football game or some other favorite sports event? And then you're in a bad mood when your team loses? A study found that deaths from heart attacks by Los Angeles residents spiked after the LA Rams lost the 1980 Super Bowl. When the Los Angeles Raiders beat the Washington Redskins in 1984, heart attack deaths in Los Angeles declined.
Stress less: We all know that it's only a game, but when you're so focused on the future of your team, it's hard to relax. Try watching the game with your children — or invite a few friends over so you'll have some distraction from the score, said Dr. Michelle Riba, professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and past president of the American Psychiatric Association. If you get stressed because you've got money riding on the game, try skipping the office pool. Often, stress is paired with alcohol, so take a pass on — or at least, reduce consumption of — the beer, and reduce or skip altogether any salty foods, such as the nachos and cheese, which will also drive up your blood pressure.
Stressful scenario: Work
The science: A study found that women who get stressed at work are more likely to have a heart attack than women who stay calm on the job.
Stress less: If your job is naturally stressful, you're going to have to find ways to calm yourself down throughout the day. Allison English, the national content and education manager at Equinox chain of fitness clubs, suggested a simple yoga pose that you could easily do at your desk when you need to de-stress fast:
While seated in a desk chair, cross your left ankle over your right thigh, hand forward over your crossed legs, allowing your head to hang toward your left shin, ideally even with or below your heart (but don't force it). Hold for five slow deep breaths, and then switch legs and repeat.
"Folding forward with your head even or below your heart with the support of the chair calms your nervous system," she said. "Opening your hips relaxes your back and lets you walk through your day more calmly, while deep breathing is the ultimate must for lowering your blood pressure and stress."
Stressful scenario: Driving
The science: A 2011 study by British researchers found that stress levels in women increased 9 percent during rush-hour traffic, and those levels in men increased a whopping 60 percent. Add to that inclement weather, crazy drivers and crying babies or feuding kids in the car, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
Stress less: "The basic physiological issue with driving is that sitting for a length of time can have detrimental effects, and as a result, causes inflammation, and degradation of the immune system," Eliaz said. "Combine this with fight-or-flight, neurological and hormonal triggers, and you can see why stressful traffic and driving situations are very dangerous for heart health."
Eliaz suggested combating this by taking a brisk walk before getting in your car, and listening to relaxing music while you drive. If you're taking a long trip, make sure you get out of the car every hour or two to stretch your legs and get some air.
Stressful scenario: Depression
The science: A new study by Concordia University in Montreal found that people who suffer from depression typically have a dysfunctional stress response, which is a major risk factor for developing heart disease.
Stress less: Depression really impacts morbidity, so it's very important for people to get evaluated, Riba said. The general rule of thumb is that if you've been feeling really sad for two consecutive weeks, you may be depressed. But if at any time you feel unable to pull yourself out of your funk — or are having problems with sleep, appetite or mood, it may be time to see a doctor for an evaluation.