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Can Stress Cause a Stroke?

cartoon brain having a stroke

For most people, stress is an unavoidable part of life. Some stress is normal, even beneficial. Relationship problems, family issues, work demands, concerns about finances, or health issues can all send stress levels soaring. In recent times, the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly stressful for many people. Most of the time, the stress lasts for a short time and goes away once the cause is resolved. In some instances, however, the stress can be prolonged or chronic, causing a range of physical and psychological symptoms. One of the fallouts of chronic stress can be an increased risk of suffering a potentially fatal stroke. Continue reading to learn how stress is a risk factor for stroke. Also, find out whether anxiety and overthinking are linked to strokes and what you can do to reduce your risk.

Why does a stroke occur?

A stroke can be one of two types—hemorrhagic or ischemic. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs due to a weak spot in a blood vessel in the brain. Weakening of the blood vessel can occur due to high blood pressure. If the blood vessel breaks, it causes bleeding in the brain. This is called a hemorrhagic stroke. An aneurysm is one of the most common causes of a hemorrhagic stroke.

An ischemic stroke happens when blood flow to a part of the brain is partially or completely blocked. This can occur due to a blood clot or cholesterol clogging a blood vessel. As a result, the brain does not receive enough oxygen and nutrients, causing the brain cells to die. 

These changes in the brain can lead to stroke signs and symptoms such as speech difficulties, paralysis, muscle weakness, balance problems, and memory difficulties. Some of these changes can improve with therapy while others are permanent. When the brain damage is severe, a stroke can be fatal.

Does high blood pressure cause a stroke? 

High blood pressure (hypertension) is among the top 5 leading causes of stroke along with high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, and obesity. Research has shown that 77% of people who have a stroke for the first time have hypertension. 

Can chronic stress cause a stroke?

Chronic stress can indirectly cause a stroke or TIA (transient ischemic attack or mini stroke). For instance, chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, which is a known risk factor for stroke and heart disease. Stress can also cause inflammation in the arteries all over the body. This can damage the blood vessels and decrease blood flow to the brain, increasing the risk of stroke. 

Research shows that people with more activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. The same part of the brain, the amygdala, is also linked to stress. It activates the fight-or-flight response when a person is under threat.

Stress might cause a stroke in other indirect ways as well. For example, a person with high stress levels may not eat healthily or get enough exercise. This can lead to health issues like high cholesterol and obesity, which are known risk factors for stroke.

Can anxiety cause stroke symptoms?

Research shows that higher anxiety levels are associated with a higher risk of stroke. One study found that anxiety and stroke are linked independent of other risk factors such as depression. The study looked at more than 6,000 participants over a 22-year period to gauge stress and anxiety levels. The researchers found that even a moderate increase in anxiety could increase a person’s stroke risk. For example, people who had the highest anxiety symptoms had a 33% higher stroke risk than people with the lowest anxiety symptoms.

How anxiety increases the risk of stroke can be explained in many ways. Chronic anxiety can damage the vasculature due to inflammation. Also, people with high levels of anxiety are more likely to smoke, eat unhealthy, and be physically inactive. All of these are known risk factors of stroke. The anxiety-stroke link can also be explained by high circulating levels of stress hormones in anxious people as well as high heart rate and blood pressure.

Managing stress symptoms

As you can see, stress and strokes are indirectly but closely related. A few days of being stressed will not affect your stroke risk. But out-of-control and untreated stress over the long term can increase your risk of experiencing a disabling and potentially deadly stroke. If you have other risks, such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, or smoking, your risk of strokes is even greater.

There are several things you can do to reduce your stroke risk. The most important is getting medical advice and treatment for health issues known to increase the risk of stroke. This can be accomplished with lifestyle changes such as healthy eating and regular exercise. However, you might also need medical treatment for these health conditions.

Although it might not be possible to eliminate anxiety and stress from your life completely, you can manage these elements to a large extent. To this end, you should aim to:

  • Avoid unhealthy eating and get plenty of exercise.
  • Build meaningful connections with friends and family members.
  • Share your worries during stressful events with close friends.
  • Find joy in the small pleasures of life.
  • Avoid watching the news excessively if it increases stress levels.
  • Spend time on hobbies and other enjoyable activities.
  • Participate in activities like meditation and yoga.
  • Learn to say no to requests that cause you to become stressed.
  • Avoid smoking, alcohol, or recreational drugs as a way to deal with chronic stress.
  • Seek local resources and support in your community.
  • See a doctor or mental health professional if you feel overwhelmed with stress, worry, fear, frustration, or anxiety.

References:

  1. https://www.stroke.org/en/about-heart-disease-in-women/latest-research/anxiety-linked-to-long-term-stroke-risk
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25520374/
  3. https://jnnp.bmj.com/content/83/11/1104