Teach Me

What to Know About the Worrisome Link Between Stress and Stroke

If you need another reason to get your stress levels under control, here’s one — high stress may increase your risk of stroke.

Your odds of having a stroke are higher if you face job-related stress or long-lasting (chronic) stress, or if you have a type A personality where you’re impatient, aggressive or quick to get angry.

Mohamed Teleb, MD, a neurologist with Banner Brain & Spine, explained more about the link between stress and stroke.

How does stress affect your stroke risk?

A stroke happens when the blood supply to your brain slows or stops. Without enough blood supply, your brain cells can be damaged or die. A stroke is a serious medical condition that needs care right away.

Different factors can increase your risk of stroke, and one of them is stress. Stress is the way your brain and body respond to challenges. Stress is part of your body’s way of staying alert. But when you’re stressed a lot, it can be bad for your health. 

Stress comes in two main types:

  • Acute stress is stress you feel in response to a short-term situation, like meeting a deadline or speaking in public. It’s a normal part of life, but it can be a problem if it happens too often.
  • Chronic stress is stress that’s there for a long time. You might feel it in response to problems with health, money, relationships or your job, or from small things that add up, like commuting in traffic. This type of stress is hard on your mind and body.

Don’t think you’re too young to have a stroke. Workplace stress and long working hours increase the risk of stroke in young people.

How does your body respond to stress?

“The body responds to stress by raising your cortisol level, which is a stress hormone. Cortisol raises your glucose level and your blood pressure and triggers your flight or flight response,” said Dr. Teleb. 

The stress response is designed to give your muscles plenty of oxygen and nutrients. But if you’re stressed a lot, your high blood pressure and heart rate may increase your risk of stroke. Stress is also linked with changes in inflammation and blood clotting, which may play a role in blood flow issues that could lead to a stroke. 

When you’re stressed a lot, you’re also more likely to make unhealthy lifestyle choices. You might have bad eating habits, skip exercising or turn to alcohol, smoking or drugs. These factors can increase your stroke risk.  

Watching for signs of stress

Sometimes it’s clear when you’re feeling stressed. But other times, you can be so caught up in your situation that you don’t notice the signs. Stress can show up as:

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, weight gain, muscle tension, fatigue or changes in your sleep. You may also see increases in your blood pressure or blood sugar.
  • Emotional changes like irritability, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed or being worried constantly. 
  • Cognitive effects like trouble concentrating, forgetfulness or racing thoughts. 
  • Behavioral changes such as changes in eating habits, using substances or withdrawal from social activities. 

Keep an eye out for these signs so you can take steps to reduce stress before it gets worse. 

Ways to reduce stress

You may be able to lower your stress levels by:

  • Getting enough restorative sleep. “Number one is proper sleep. Proper sleep is linked to lower blood pressure, better focus and less anxiety,” Dr. Teleb said.
  • Choosing a well-balanced diet centered around fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins with minimal caffeine, sugar and processed foods. 
  • Making time for things you enjoy doing, like reading, walking, listening to music or hobbies that take focus. 
  • Getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days.
  • Connecting with people you care about.
  • Trying stress relievers like yoga, mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, journaling or relaxation exercises.
  • Breaking tasks into smaller, manageable goals so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

Ways to reduce your stroke risk  

Along with reducing stress, there are other things you can do to lower your risk of stroke

  • Keep your blood pressure healthy. “The number one modifiable risk factor outside of smoking is hypertension,” Dr. Teleb said.
  • Choose a heart-healthy diet.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • If you have diabetes, manage your blood sugar levels.
  • If you smoke, try to quit.
  • If you drink alcohol, keep it to low or moderate amounts.

“You have to practice the changes for a while. Whether it’s high blood pressure, diabetes or a lack of exercise, you don’t see the benefits right away. You may see changes in six months to a year, and it can be difficult to be patient while you wait for results,” Dr. Teleb said.

But making these changes is worth it. They don’t just decrease your stroke risk. They lower your risk for other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and dementia.

The bottom line

If stress is part of your life, you’ll want to find ways to manage it. Otherwise, it can increase your risk of stroke. But taking the right steps can reduce both your stress and your other stroke risk factors.

Be sure to have regular check-ups with your provider to talk about your stress levels, stroke risk and other health concerns. If the steps you’re taking to manage your stress aren’t working for you, your provider can refer you to a mental health professional for support. If you need to connect with an expert, reach out to Banner Health.

To evaluate your risk of stroke based on your age, sex, body size, ethnicity and risk factors, try our free interactive Banner Health Stroke Risk Profiler.

Other useful articles

Behavioral Health Heart Health Stress Wellness Brain and Spine Stroke