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 Stress Feature Story

Stressed Smoker Today, Heart Patient Tomorrow
Psychological distress appears to heighten cardiovascular risk

Stressed Smoker Today, Heart Patient Tomorrow(HealthDay News) -- People who cope with life's stresses by turning to cigarettes or heading for the sofa instead of the exercise bike are more apt to develop heart disease.

British researchers found that the incidence of cardiovascular problems in a seven-year span was 50 percent higher among people under psychological distress.

"This increased risk can largely be explained by the higher smoking rates and low exercise levels of individuals who were stressed," the study's lead author, Mark Hamer, a senior research fellow in epidemiology and public health at University College London, told HealthDay.

Smoking and lack of physical activity accounted for 63 percent of the increase, while smoking alone was responsible for 41 percent, the study found. The results were reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The findings suggest that preventing people's bad habits might be a way to reduce cardiovascular problems.

"It would be beneficial for cardiologists to work with psychologists," Hamer said.

But why do smokers cope with stress by lighting up?

It's a way for smokers to take a time out, to think about their stress or distract themselves from their troubles, according to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute at the University of South Florida. Because smoking is often a social activity, it might also bring to mind feelings of group support. And because cigarettes contain nicotine, the addicted smoker gets a quick pick-me-up.

But using cigarettes to cope with stress creates a number of problems, the cancer center says:

  • The stress will return and you will need another smoke.
  • The cause of the stress will remain.
  • The stress won't kill you, but the smoking might.
  • Smoking actually causes more stress than it relieves. Studies show that stress levels go down after quitting.

Putting physical activity on the back burner because of stress is also not a good idea, experts say.

In fact, there's evidence to suggest that active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression, according to the American Psychological Association. Researchers believe that exercise helps the brain cope better with stress by forcing various physiological systems in the body to communicate more closely with one another.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America offers tips for starting an exercise program:

  • Jog, walk, bike or dance three to five times a week for 30 minutes.
  • Set small daily goals. It's better to walk every day for 15 to 20 minutes than to wait for the weekend to put in a three-hour workout.
  • Find forms of exercise that are fun and enjoyable.
  • Distract yourself. Listen to an audio book, podcast or music while you exercise.
  • Recruit an exercise buddy. It's usually easier to stick to a routine when you have to stay committed to a friend, partner or colleague.
Be patient when starting a new exercise program. If you've been sedentary, it might take four to eight weeks to feel coordinated and sufficiently in shape so that exercise feels easier.

On the Web

To learn more about controlling stress, visit the American Heart Association.

SOURCES: HealthDay News; Mark Hamer, Ph.D., senior research fellow, epidemiology and public health, University College London; Dec. 16/23, 2008, Journal of the American College of Cardiology; Forever Free: A Guide to Remaining Smoke Free, Smoking Stress & Mood, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, University of South Florida, Tampa, Fla.; American Psychological Association (www.apa.org); Anxiety Disorders Association of America (www.adaa.org)
Author: Karen Pallarito
Publication Date: Jan. 31, 2010
Copyright © 2010 ScoutNews, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

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