May 4, 2023
A stroke is a common and dangerous health condition. When you have a stroke, blood cannot flow to the brain, which can damage the delicate brain tissue. This can result in brain damage, disability, or death. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in America and the leading cause of disability.
Multiple factors can lead to a stroke. Many health conditions can increase your risk of stroke. In addition, high levels of stress can exacerbate underlying conditions and increase the risk of having a stroke.
What Is a Stroke?
A stroke occurs when blood cannot travel through a blood vessel to the brain. Without blood flow, the brain doesn’t get the oxygen it needs, and brain cells die. The results of a stroke vary, depending on how much brain tissue is damaged during the stroke. https://www.stroke.org/en/about-stroke
There are three types of strokes:
- Ischemic stroke occurs when a blot clot or other obstruction prevents blood from flowing through a blood vessel and reaching the brain.
- Hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel ruptures and blood cannot flow to the brain.
- Transient ischemic attack, also called a mini-stroke, occurs when a temporary clot affects blood flow to the brain.
Stroke can affect anyone, but some factors increase your risk of stroke. Risk factors include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Inflammatory conditions such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
- Kidney disease
- Bleeding disorders
- Sleep apnea
- A family history of stroke
- Certain medications, such as blood thinners
The symptoms of stroke include:2
- Sudden numbness or weakness in the limbs or face
- Sudden mental confusion, trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding when others speak
- Sudden difficulty seeing in one or both eyes.
- Sudden difficulty with walking and balance loss of coordination, or dizziness,
- Sudden severe headache
If you think you or someone you know is having a stroke, call 911 immediately. A stroke is a medical emergency, and immediate treatment is crucial.
Can Stress Cause a Stroke?
Stress is commonly associated with stroke. People will ask doctors if stress can cause a stroke or if stress will cause a mini-stroke. Stress alone cannot lead to a stroke. However, a lifestyle with frequent high-stress situations or a history of anxiety can increase the risk of stroke, particularly if you have other risk factors. Stress causes reactions in the body that can exacerbate certain stroke risks.
What Stress Does to the Body
The physical effects of feeling stressed are easy to identify. You might notice your rate seems higher, your breathing becomes shallower, and your muscles might tense up. This is due to a series of chemical reactions happening in your body.3
When you are in a stressful situation, your body releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin. These chemicals trigger the “fight or flight” response. Stress hormones affect multiple body functions, including:
- Heart Rate: Stress hormones signal the heart to beat faster and harder. In addition, the blood vessels that lead to the heart dilate to allow blood to flow more quickly. This causes an increase in blood pressure. Ongoing stress may lead to chronic high blood pressure and damage to coronary arteries.
- Breathing: Stress hormones trigger faster, shallower breathing. Stress-related breathing changes can result in asthma attacks or hyperventilation. It can also exacerbate symptoms of people with underlying lung conditions such as emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Blood Sugar: Stress hormones signal the body to release higher levels of glucose into the bloodstream. Glucose provides quick energy, but frequent and rapid spikes in blood surge levels can be problematic. It may contribute to blood vessel changes, such as hardening of artery walls that can restrict blood flow.
How Stress Can Cause a Stroke
Stress can continue to stroke risk. Both short-term and long-term stress can play a role in causing a stroke.4
Short, high-stress events can increase the risk of stroke due to the sudden rise in blood pressure. This risk is higher for people with health conditions that affect their blood vessels. If you have stiffening of blood vessel walls, obstruction from high levels of cholesterol, or weakening of blood vessels, a rapid increase in blood pressure could result in obstruction of blood flow. It could also trigger a tear in rupture vessel walls, leading to a hemorrhage.
Long-term stress, such as a high-stress job, sustained family or relationship problems, or chronic symptoms related to depression or anxiety, can affect your overall health. It can contribute to new or worsening heart and blood vessel disease. Stress can contribute to chronic pain conditions exacerbated by muscle tension. In addition, chronic stress may lead to poor health habits that negatively affect well-being. Over time, the effects of stress on the body can lead to increased stroke risk.
Ways to Relieve Stress
Managing stress can improve both mental and physical health as well as reduce the risk of a stroke. Creating a plan to address and counteract stress is a good way to improve your overall health. Tactics for managing stress include:5,6
- Movement: Most experts recommend 30 minutes of activity every day for optimal health. Movement is also a great way to manage stress. Physical activity, such as taking a walk, can help your body clear out stress hormones and get out of the fight or flight response. Stretching help relax tense muscles and reduce joint stiffness. Vigorous activity can trigger the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that promote relaxation.
- Maintain Relationships: Staying connected to friends and family is a healthy way of addressing stress. Isolation can contribute to feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed. Having people to talk to can make you feel supported. Doing fun activities with loved ones can give you something to look forward to and allow you to focus on positive activities.
- Avoid Triggers: Identify any situations or individuals who trigger your stress responses. If possible, limit your time with your stress triggers. When you have to encounter your stress triggers, take time to plan how you can best manage the encounter with minimal stress on yourself.
- Enjoyable Activities: Doing things that you enjoy can improve your mood, calm your nerves, and give you breaks from stressful situations. Activities like listening to music, reading for pleasure, gardening, cooking, or doing arts and crafts may reduce your stress levels.
- Seek Counseling: Talking to a therapist or counselor can be beneficial during times of stress. A mental health professional will be able to guide you through difficult times and help you make any changes you need to protect your mental health.
When to See a Doctor
If you have health conditions that could increase your risk of a stroke or if your stress levels are affecting your health, talk to your doctor. They can discuss your concerns and help you build a treatment plan to reduce the risk of a stroke in the future.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know is experiencing a stroke, call 911 for immediate assistance.
- “STROKE: Causes and Risk Factors.” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Last updated on March 24, 2022. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/stroke/causes.
- “Stroke Signs and Symptoms.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last Reviewed: May 4, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/stroke/signs_symptoms.htm.
- “Stress effects on the body.” American Psychological Association. Last updated: March 8, 2023. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body.
- Meg Burke, MD. “How Stress Increases Stroke Risk.” GoodRx. April 1, 2022. https://www.goodrx.com/conditions/stroke/can-stress-cause-stroke
- “How to Relieve Stress: A 6-Step Plan to Feeling Good.” John Hopkins Medicine. No date. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/how-to-relieve-stress-a-6-step-plan-to-feeling-good
- Heidi Godman. “Top ways to reduce daily stress.” Harvard Health Publishing. March 1, 2022. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/top-ways-to-reduce-daily-stress
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