Love your heart: managing stress and preventing heart disease as a college student

Sam Askew, Campus Carrier managing editor

Katelynn Singleton, Campus Carrier editor-in-chief

April is National Stress Awareness Month. As a college student, you may be very familiar with stress. Whether it be that essay that you have not started on, the book review for a book you have not read or homework that has been piling up, college students are only enduring things that get more and more stressful. What is stress, though? What are the warning signs? How can you cope with intense amounts of stress? There are many different ways to answer that question, and it varies from person to person. Stress manifests itself differently in each situation, but there are a few overarching symptoms to be on the lookout for.

WebMD divides symptoms of stress into 4 categories: emotional, physical, cognitive and behavioral symptoms. Emotional symptoms include things like becoming agitated or moody, feeling overwhelmed, difficulty relaxing, low self-esteem, and isolation. These symptoms can also be made worse when combined with other mental problems like depression, anxiety or ADHD. These manifestations can be difficult to manage as they are mostly internal, and it is already difficult enough for some people to regulate their emotions without added stress. Physical symptoms are things such as low energy, headaches, upset stomach, aches, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, insomnia, frequent colds, nervousness or shaking, dry mouth and clenched jaw. It can be difficult at first to notice such symptoms sometimes, especially if someone is in a constant state of stress, which is usually a symptom of anxiety. Cognitive symptoms may be worrying, racing thoughts, forgetfulness, lack of focus, poor judgement and pessimism. Along with emotional symptoms, these can be difficult to manage. Finally, behavioral symptoms range from changes in appetite, procrastinating, nail biting, fidgeting and pacing, to more serious behaviors like substance abuse.

It is important to note that some stress in your daily life, every now and again, is nothing to be too concerned about. A small level of stress is normal and something that every human being encounters. However, when you get into long periods of stress, ongoing or chronic, it can lead to major health problems. This may include mental health problems, heart problems, obesity, menstrual problems, sexual disfunction, skin and hair problems and gastrointestinal problems. The most common problem, though, involves the heart. Carolyn Reilly, professor and director of Berry’s nursing program, stresses the importance of prevention.

“Prevention,” Reilly said. “Heart disease is the leading killer. It’s just a little bit above cancer, but it’s still the leading killer in the United States. And it is estimated that 60-80% [of cases] can be totally prevented.”

Heart disease and other heart problems, although they do not manifest themselves usually when you are younger, may come up when you are older because of unmanaged stress. So, how do we manage our stress and protect our hearts? There are a few ways to do that.

The most obvious step you can take in preventing heart problems and managing stress is limiting the amount of substances you use. This includes cigarettes and alcohol.

“Probably the number one thing we can do to prevent heart disease is to not smoke,” Reilly said. “It’s both the nicotine and the toxins that you’re inhaling, all of that has adverse effects on the body. It can lead to plaque deposits in coronary arteries, which leads to a heart attack.”

While the high that comes from drugs and alcohol can be used to blunt the effects of hormones that create the stress response, if used long term it can make it more difficult for the body to manage stress without the use of a drug, according to GoodRx. Increased, chronic stress can lead to substance abuse, so it is important to manage that stress without relying on a substance. 

The next best thing is exercise. According to the Mayo Clinic, virtually any form of exercise can act as a stress reliever, whether it is aerobics or yoga. A little bit of exercise can go a long way in stress prevention.

“There’s been some recent work done on exercise,” Reilly said. “The current recommendation is that everybody engage in 150 minutes of exercise a week. That can be spread out. If you did the math, I think it comes out to around 22 minutes a day.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise has numerous benefits that increase your overall health and well-being, but there are some direct effects on stress. For instance, physical activity may increase the production of the brain’s endorphins, which are the feel-good neurotransmitters. This feeling that comes out of exercising is sometimes called a “runner’s high.” Exercise mimics the feeling of stress and helps your body work through those feelings, including your cardiovascular, digestive, and immune systems. Exercise also provides a sort of meditation, in which you forget about the things that bothered you during the day after you are done exercising. Exercising also improves your mood, self-confidence, relaxation, and lowers symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Granted, one should not jump right into bench-pressing 500 pounds. You should build up your fitness routine gradually, so as to not overwhelm your body. Maintaining a routine enough to develop a habit of exercising will go a long way in preventing stress and increasing heart health. Talking to your friends and seeing if they will work out with you can be a good way to keep yourself disciplined and accountable.

“Just by incorporating that and making that a habit of exercising every single day, 150 minutes a week, 22 minutes a day, that has been shown to decrease mortality up to 30%,” Reilly said. “If you double it, it can take it up to 40%.”

 Finding time to work out and exercise can be tough with a college schedule. However, even exercising just a little bit can go a long way to improving your health.

“Even doing half of that, even doing just 11 minutes a day, has been shown to decrease mortality by 20%,” Reilly said. “So, every little bit helps. Even if it’s going out for a fifteen minute walk at lunch.”

It is important to notice symptoms of stress that may be showing themselves in you or in a loved one. If you, as a college student, are feeling overwhelmed by stress, you have a couple of options. First, you can talk to your professor. Professors want you to succeed, and most will be more than happy to help you figure out how to manage your stress if it is academic in nature. Second, you can make an appointment with a counselor. The Berry College Counseling Center is filled with excellent counselors who are trained to help college students manage stress. Third, you can talk to your primary care physician. Chronic stress can be a signal to other health problems, so it is crucial to keep on top of it.

Leave a Reply