Women, stress, work, and heart disease: 5 ways to protect yourself

“Harvard researchers have uncovered strong links between women’s job stress and cardiovascular disease. Findings from the Women’s Health Study (WHS) — a landmark inquiry into disease prevention involving more than 17,000 female health professionals — show that women whose work is highly stressful have a 40% increased risk of heart disease (including heart attacks and the need for coronary artery surgery) compared with their less-stressed colleagues. The results, which were presented at an American Heart Association meeting in 2010, also showed that women who worry about losing their jobs are more likely to have high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels and to be obese.”

Possible mechanisms

The body is programmed to react to life-threatening stress (“The house is on fire!”) with a “fight-or-flight” response, in which the brain triggers a cascade of chemicals and hormones that speed the heart rate, quicken breathing, increase blood pressure, and boost the amount of energy (sugar) supplied to muscles. Unfortunately, the body does a poor job of discriminating between grave, imminent dangers and less momentous ongoing sources of stress, such as financial difficulties, job strain, and even worries about potential problems that haven’t yet arisen. When the fight-or-flight response is chronically in the “on” position, the body suffers.

What can you do?

The stress induced by excessive demands and too little control is not unique to the workplace. Many women have multiple concurrent jobs — for example, caring for children, aging parents, or other relatives while running a household and working outside the home — often without the resources to manage them all. Situations like this may be unavoidable, and in a tight job market, you may feel there’s little you can do to make your work life less stressful. Nevertheless, there are steps you can take, including these:

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  1. Foster mutually supportive relationships with friends, family, and co-workers.
  2. Get regular exercise. It’s good for the heart, reduces anxiety and depression, and improves sleep.
  3. Limit intrusions (such as work-related e-mails) on your life outside of work.
  4. Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing, progressive relaxation, or visualization.
  5. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, seek help from a mental health professional.