It is well known that too much stress is bad for our health. It can cause headache, digestive issues, anxiety, problems with sleep, etc. But can stress cause a stroke? In this article read about research on stroke and stress, what doctors say as well as stroke risk factors that are directly linked to stress. It will help you determine whether the amount of stress you experience in your life can put you at increased risk of experiencing a stroke. Even though one stressful day most likely won’t put you at risk, research shows that chronic, prolonged stress can increase your risk of experiencing a stroke.

What does research about stress and stroke say?

Based on research that showed up in “Stroke”, an American Heart Association journal, middle-aged and elderly people who experienced high levels of stress, depression and hostility are at a much higher risk for stroke and TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack). In the study with almost 7000 participants, everyone did a survey about their stress levels which included questions about chronic stress, signs of depression and hostility.

During the survey, none of the participants had any cardiovascular disease. However in the follow up surveys, around 10 years later, 147 participants experienced a stroke and 48 had a TIA. It might not seem like a big number considering the volume of the surveyed, yet those who experienced stress had a 59% greater chance of getting a stroke or a TIA due to stress. And those who showed signs of hostility had a two times greater possibility of experiencing a stroke. From the research it was concluded that stress contributes to an increased risk of a stroke.

One Harvard University research about the relation between stress and stroke claims that stress can be just as dangerous and defining of a stroke risk factor as smoking and high blood pressure. Research showed how when experiencing stress, amygdala (an area of the brain that deals with stress) sends signals to the bone marrow to produce extra white blood cells. This however causes inflammation in the arteries. And inflammation as we know is involved in processes that lead to heart attack, angina and stroke.

Even though the aforementioned is based on research, there are various more factors that serve as evidence that stress can lead to stroke. And because stress is very common everywhere in the world, it is very important to look into this question further, learn more about stress, how to control it and minimize it as much as possible.

Am I experiencing too much stress?

Ryan Sundermann, an MD from UnityPoint Health says that too many people ignore the stress they’re experiencing and doesn’t treat it as serious as they should. Determining how much stress a person experiences is difficult because each person has a different tolerance for stress. “One person’s stress is not the same as another’s. Some folks have a lot of stress just from dealing with kids and finances. Others might carry the stress of running a small business or an entire corporation. Then, there are jobs where people are faced with real world dangers, like firefighters and police officers where real world dangers are no big deal and they are as happy as anyone else. Regardless of your job, if you feel you’re under stress, you probably are,” Dr. Sundermann says.

If you are not sure whether you are under stress, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my partner telling me that I seem stressed?
  • Am I experiencing conflicts at work or at home more than usual?
  • Do things that used to make me happy do not bring me as much joy?
  • Is it hard for me to fall asleep or stay asleep unlike before?
  • Is it hard for me to get out of bed in the morning, especially in days I know will be more draining?
  • Do I use alcohol, drugs or tobacco to feel less stressed?

What happens to my body when I experience stress?

During stress the brain releases chemicals that do several things to prepare us for a threat. These chemicals are being produced no matter the kind of stress we experience. It can be due to physical harm, fear, grief, daily stress from work or relationships, etc. The chemical process in the body will be the same. The two main chemicals that are released during stress are cortisol and adrenaline.

  • Cortisol is a hormone that makes our body retain water and sodium which causes increase in blood pressure. It also has different other mechanisms like storing sugar in the body, and it also makes the sugar available for use such that our bodies get energy. Evolutionary this process served well. It prepared us to protect ourselves and run from a dangerous animal, attacker, and in today’s world helps us deal with a big, urgent problem when otherwise we are tired from a long day and out of energy.
  • Adrenaline is a hormone that is also known as epinephrine and is a type of catecholamines. Adrenaline and the hormones similar to it cause increased heart rate and and increased blood pressure. The increased blood pressure will pump blood to vital organs.

Does stress cause a stroke?

Two of the main types of stroke are ischemic stroke (stroke that occurs due to blocked arteries) and hemorrhagic stroke (stroke that occurs due to bleeding arteries). To find more about the types of stroke, read in our article “What is a stroke?“.

As we discovered the stroke risk factors (read in “What causes a stroke?“), for example, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, obesity, etc. And knowing that stress can exacerbate them, then it is for a good reason to think that stress and stroke are indeed linked. Stress can also lead to unhealthy habits like smoking, sedentary lifestlye, unhealthy diet, etc, which are also stroke risk factors.

“If you’re at increased risk because of your family history or you have other risk factors, such as tobacco use, high blood pressure, etc., then a very stressful event is going to increase cortisol and adrenaline, which can raise blood pressure and stress vessels already at risk. The increased blood flow could also disrupt plaques that might be fragile,” Dr. Sundermann says. He also adds that if you live in a chronic or persistent state of stress, there is some evidence of increased stroke risk, which we also found out from the aforementioned research results. However, this connection is complex and not fully understood. But when looking at the basics of stress and stroke, it makes sense.

“When under constant stress, you have persistent high levels in cortisol and other stress hormones. This causes retention of salt, which increases blood pressure. Overtime, that would cause stress on blood vessels. Stress also causes an increase in blood sugar, which means the vessels can’t dilate or contract to better control blood flow. Increased cortisol also disrupts sleep cycles, which can make us more stressed and release more cortisol. Poor sleep means fatigue, and fatigue can cause us to gain weight for several reasons. Simply, when we are tired we are less likely to exercise and more likely to eat poorly,” Dr. Sundermann says.

How to control and minimize stress levels?

With so many stress causes and obvious link between stress and stroke, it is very important to consciously try and control it. Stress can lead to unhealthy lifestyle, however consciously sticking to healthy lifestyle can help control stress and minimize it. It is a vicious circle. You can keep it under control with physical activities, well balanced diet, regular sleeping patters, etc. Certainly there will be life events and times that are going to cause a lot of stress. It can be at work, a difficult life experience, relationship difficulties. However within your capabilities it is recommended that you do what you can to reduce it due to your own health. These are some suggestions that may help you.

  • Listen to music that makes you feel good
  • Talk to a loved one or a friend when you are feeling low
  • Write, paint, draw or express yourself creatively in any other way
  • Take a walk outside
  • Accept that there are things that you cannot control
  • Learn and try a relaxation technique: yoga, meditation, etc
  • Do your best to organize your time and schedule
  • Set achievable goals and learn to say “no” when you feel like you are being asked too much
  • Allow some time for your hobbies, interests and relaxation
  • Rest enough after a stressful day or a difficult experience
  • Try to avoid alcohol, drugs and any other compulsive behaviors to reduce stress
  • If you have the chance, you might want to talk to a therapist