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Stress is your body's emotional and physical response to demands placed upon it. While causes of stress vary greatly, bodily reactions are similar. The heart rate and blood pressure increase as hormones, particularly adrenaline, are released into the blood stream. Blood vessels in the skin constrict, muscles tense, breathing quickens, blood clotting increases, blood sugar rises, and serum cholesterol levels may rise. Stress may increase feelings of fear, anxiety and anger.

Stress is helpful in coping with an immediate danger in an emergency. However, the rise in heart rate and blood pressure increase the need for oxygen to the heart and may bring on angina in people with coronary artery disease. The tendency of the blood to clot could lead forming a clot in a coronary artery causing a heart attack.

Types of Stress

The stress response can be triggered by an event such as a near-miss on the freeway. This "alarm" stress is normally infrequent but people who anger easily may experience it more frequently. High levels of anger and hostility have been linked to increased coronary risk.

"Hyper-vigilance," a more common stress reaction, is stress experienced on an ongoing basis, such as dealing with a job layoff, a reoccurring illness, or living or working with someone with a violent temper. Prolonged, chronic stress, even at low levels, puts strain on the body and increases cardiovascular risk as well as risk for many other illnesses.

In the past it was thought that "Type A" personality contributed to the risk of heart disease. More recent studies have found that either depression or hostility poses a much greater risk. Depression and anxiety have been shown to decrease survival following a heart attack. Depression should be discussed with your physician or health care provider.

Getting Help

To manage your stress, first try to identify your stressors (causes), then work out a plan to decrease the pressure. Don't be shy about seeking help. Many companies provide classes to help employees decrease stress, as do many local community centers and colleges. An informal support group can yield tremendous benefits. Or you may prefer to work individually with a therapist. Exercise can also help reduce the feeling of stress.

Other stress management techniques include maintaining a social support system, improving communication skills, practice positive thinking, eliminate irrational thinking, organize your time, get enough rest, avoid self-medicating with caffeine, alcohol, or drugs, reserve time for a hobby or activity you enjoy, exercise, and practice relaxation through meditation, prayer, yoga, or other Eastern exercises.