Acute Stress Can Kill You – What About Chronic Stress?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Tense, sore shoulders. Snapping or blowing up at others easily. Feeling overwhelmed, fatigued and beat down most of the time… All symptoms of stress.

Feeling stressed doesn’t just make you feel bad, though. It can be downright deadly.

When I was 13, my grandmother died from a massive stroke. When her oil burner started smoking, she became enraged, and then really confused. Soon after, she was gone.

I share this tragedy with you because I don’t want you or your loved ones to let stress to rob you of your vitality, or your life.

No matter what situation you’re in, following a few simple guidelines I’ll talk about below can help you get the upper hand on stress.

You’ll feel better, happier, and healthier (and others around you might too).

The Effects of Stress Can Be Deadly

Everybody experiences stress – it’s hardwired into who we are as humans.

When you see a car coming at your child, grandchild or pet, the rush of adrenaline and cortisol you feel helps you act quickly and with great strength to prevent the worst from happening. And you have your stress hormones to thank.

But when you’re experiencing the acute stress hormone rush daily, through various situations that aren’t truly “life or death,” you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Think about this startling statistic: in about 50% of cardiovascular disease cases, sudden death is the first clinical symptom.

Stress, indeed, is a very under-acknowledged cardiovascular risk factor.

Chronic Stress Increases Cardiovascular Risk

Chronic stress comes from a situation in life that’s constantly wearing you down – often something over which you have no control, like:

  • When you are caring for a sick relative,
  • When you’re overcommitted and stretched too thin,
  • When you’re stuck with an awful boss or hate your job
  • When you’re in a bad relationship or marriage, or going through a divorce.

It’s a low-grade background tension that never really eases up. A hum of worry that often goes unnoticed. And, if you never get a break from it, and chronic stress just feels “normal,” that’s very bad.

The thing that concerns me most of all, as a cardiologist is how chronic stress damages the heart. The constant release of stress hormones can give your blood a sludgy consistency; with blood, you want red wine, not red ketchup. It can also raise your blood pressure and cause irregular heartbeats.

A quickened heart rate isn’t a bad thing if it’s now and again. But when you are constantly stressed, your health is in danger. Over time, stress weakens your immune system, and leaves you vulnerable to all sorts of illnesses and diseases.

Acute Stress: a Double-Edged Sword

As I mentioned above, acute stress can be life-saving, like when you’re in a really bad situation and you need to make a fast escape. But a sudden rush of anger can also kill you.

Acute stress can come from a host of situations like:

  • the death of a loved one,
  • a sudden unexpected money problem,
  • witnessing (or being the victim of) a crime,
  • a cruel “act of God,”
  • Road rage – everyday driving, especially in cities.

And, if you’ve got a weakened cardiovascular system, stress from any of these sitations can lead to a stroke, or a heart attack. An already over-taxed system is more vulnerable to the effects of stress.

Generally speaking, you don’t need to worry much about acute stress – that is, unless you’re getting upset and angry, easily and often. If this is the case, it’s probably more of a bubbling over of chronic stress. In other words, acute stress – felt often enough – dramatically increases your odds of having health problems.

Learn to Recognize the Symptoms of Stress

Acute stress: Easy to recognize… Your heart beats fast and hard, your hands might get clammy, your breath quickens, your hands and feet get cold, or your head gets hot.

If you feel yourself reflexively making fists, you’re probably suffering from a bout with acute stress.

Chronic stress: A little harder to diagnose. But there are a few tell-tale signs to watch out for.

Is your stomach regularly in knots, a pit of dread and bad feelings? Are you not sleeping at night, worrying about life? Do daily situations make you lose your appetite or eat more than you’re hungry for? Are you not just living for the weekend, but screaming for it? Do you wake up with dread about your average day? Are you tired all the time – or just feel checked out, like there’s nothing you want to do?

There’s a decent chance you’ve got chronic stress, and possibly may be depressed (chronic stress can underlie depression).

Testing for Stress

If you’re worried about chronic stress and want to know if it’s really impacting your health, you can ask a health professional for a Heart Rate Variability (HRV) test. The variability in your heart rate is the time between your heart beats.

Having the time between heart beats change a lot is a sign of health. If the time between your heart beats is a near constant – if you could set a metronome to your heart, no matter what you’re doing – that’s a sign of stress…and poor health.

How To Deal With Stress

Rule number one: Don’t feel more stress about being stressed! This is the worst thing you can do. All it does is set you up for a vicious cycle of stress hormone release. A lot of people also make things worse by dealing with stress in unhealthy ways, like turning to alcohol, smoking, or other dangerous, addictive behaviors.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

If you recognize that you’re stressed – or even if you don’t – there are plenty of healthy things you can do to relieve the tension.


One of my “pillars of health,” regular, moderate exercise one of the best ways to let go of your tension.

Sure, some people like to hit a heavy bag, and pretend they’re knocking out all their problems. But, for many people, just taking a walk and clearing their minds is more effective. Put on some music and dance, play “tag” with your children or grandchildren…The important thing here is to find something you enjoy – and do it often.

Meditate and Breathe

Meditation isn’t just for yogis anymore. Observing and controlling your breath is a great way to get rid of tension, wherever you are.

It doesn’t have to be anything formal – just spend a few minutes each day mindfully breathing… in the car, walking outside, even washing dishes. Breathe deeply and slowly. Picture yourself breathing good energy in, and bad energy out, thinking of nothing but your breath.

I personally like to go bone fishing. When I’m stalking the flats for bonefish, I’m not thinking of anything but what I’m doing… not my family, my work, my responsibilities. I’m in the moment, and one with my breath.

Now if you are into yoga – another great stress relieving practice – Pranyama, or alternative nostril breathing, is a fantastic way to support heart rate variability and reduce stress. While conducting a Yoga and the Heart workshop / class at the Sivananda Yoga Center last month, I was amazed when I tested the swamis’ heart rate variability. Their sedative breathing had an enormous impact, which told me that they were de-stressed and really emotionally healthy.

Even if you’re not into yoga, you’ll be amazed how much better you feel after just 10 minutes of conscious breathing.

Have a Hobby

If life is getting you down, find something that lifts you up.

I can’t tell you what will do the trick for you – maybe building model trains, doing puzzles, going to museums, decorating, painting pictures, or collecting comics.

Whatever you like doing, do it. Some people think hobbies are a waste of time. Nope. Hobbies are one of the best ways I know to unwind, relax, and let go of the stress of everyday life.


Lee Berk, a researcher at the University of California-Irvine, found awhile back that laughter releases a flood of endorphins and other helpful happy chemicals. It’s like jogging for your brain.

So find joy in the absurdities of life. Go to a comedy club once in awhile. Make time to watch that funny movie everyone’s talking about. This isn’t wasted time – it’s essential.

Play with Children, Grandchildren or Pets

Young children, dogs and cats are masters at spontaneous play. They are not lost in their heads; they just know how to have fun in the moment with whatever game is at hand. Losing yourself in their world, even if for just a little while, is a great way to forget your troubles and cultivate positive vibration-raising emotions like joy and happiness in your life.

Pets, especially, are great healers (and, unlike children, who need entertaining activities, pets are usually content to simply be with you). With their unconditional love and devoted companionship, they can help you relax and keep your heart strong (learn about 7 ways they do this in the article below).

The Healing Power of Pets


I’m a huge proponent of grounding, or Earthing – walking barefoot on the bare earth. It allows the Earth’s healing energy to come up, unimpeded, into your body. It provides a free flow of electrons – from the negatively charged Earth – to gently balance out the free radicals that float around our bodies and do damage. Grounding also supports heart rate variability and has a blood-thinning effect, both of which counteract negative effects of stress on the body.

So go for that barefoot walk in the park or on the beach. Kick off your shoes and enjoy connecting with the Earth – see how it makes you feel.

Whichever stress management tool calls to you most – hopefully more than one – use it! Stress is a bona fide killer. But, with just a little attention each day, you can lead a more relaxed, happy, and healthy life.


© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.

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