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Here’s how chronic stress and anxiety may affect your risk of having a stroke.

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Did you know that stress and anxiety may increase your risk of experiencing a disabling or deadly stroke? One stressed out day won’t necessarily affect your stroke risk, but unmanaged chronic stress may. In fact, chronic stress and anxiety, in addition to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes, are key factors that affect stroke risk.

Stress is an unavoidable fact of life for many of us. Work demands, family issues and concerns about health and finances send stress levels soaring. During the past few months, stress and anxiety levels have increased for many people in the U.S. as the COVID-19 pandemic creates uncertainty in our lives. While some of this stress is unavoidable, finding ways to manage it can help lower stroke risk and keep you healthier overall, as well as helping you to feel calmer and happier.

How Stress Affects Stroke Risk

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is completely or partially blocked due to a blood clot, clogged blood vessel or bleeding in the brain. When the amount of oxygen-rich blood your brain receives decreases, brain cells die. Paralysis, speech difficulties, balance or memory issues and/or muscle weakness may occur as a result of cell death. Some of these problems can be overcome with therapy, while others may be permanent. Strokes can even cause death if brain damage is severe.

Chronic stress and anxiety increases inflammation in your arteries and throughout your body. Eventually, damage caused by inflammation can narrow or stiffen the vessels, decreasing blood flow to your brain. Blood pressure also tends to increase when you’re stressed and when blood pressure is consistently high, it can narrow or weaken blood vessels. This makes it easier for blood clots to form or for vessels to leak or burst, triggering a stroke.

Even a slight increase in stress and anxiety levels may raise stroke risk, according to a research study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke. Researchers followed more than 6,000 people over 22 years to determine how stress and anxiety affects the risk of stroke. Study participants who reported the highest stress levels were 33% more likely to have a stroke than those who felt less anxious or stressed. The greater the anxiety level, the higher the stroke risk, but even modest increases raised stroke risk.

How to Lower Stress in Healthy Ways

Managing stress is an important part of managing your health, as long as you do it in productive and healthy ways. There are unhealthy ways some people manage stress, such as overeating, drinking, smoking or doing drugs, but these may only add to your stroke risk. For example, junk food binges may make you feel calmer, but poor eating habits increase your risk of developing high cholesterol. An increase in “bad” cholesterol causes plaque to accumulate in your blood vessels. This fatty, waxy substance not only narrows blood vessels but can break off and form clots that travel to the brain, causing a stroke.

Although it’s impossible to completely eliminate stress and anxiety from your life, these steps may help you prevent it from taking over your life:

  • Get plenty of exercise and rest
  • Make healthy eating a priority
  • Stay connected to friends and family, even if only virtually for now
  • Share your worries with a trusted relative, friend or health professional
  • Find something to smile or laugh about every day
  • Spend more time on hobbies and things that bring you joy
  • Try meditation, yoga, guided imagery or deep breathing techniques
  • Take time just for yourself every day, even if it’s just a few minutes
  • When you feel tension rising, take a few minutes to step back and put things in perspective
  • Give yourself permission to say “no” to requests that will add to your stress
  • Don’t manage stress by drinking, smoking or taking drugs
  • Schedule an appointment with a mental health counselor if you feel overwhelmed by stress

Every year, 800,000 people experience strokes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One way you may be able to avoid becoming another stroke statistic is by keeping your stress and anxiety under control.

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Date Last Reviewed: August 12, 2020

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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