For women in particular, Christmas can be a source of stress. But how does stress affect heart health, and what steps can you take to manage it more effectively?

With Christmas just around the corner it’s easy to get caught up in the stress and chaos it causes. Your busy life becomes even more hectic as extra shopping, cooking, and spending create additional anxiety. And with so much going on, you may feel it’s simply easier to ignore the symptoms of heart disease and to put the demands of friends and family before your own health needs.

Perhaps you take pride in being able to accomplish a multitude of tasks and trying to be everything to everyone. But the extra pressure and responsibilities at Christmas can feel overwhelming, and this can have a negative impact on both your physical and mental health.

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death for men and women. So taking care of heart health is important, and that includes avoiding risk factors or behaviours that lead to heart disease, recognising the symptoms, and seeking treatment if you experience the signs.

Risk factors for heart disease

As you may know, the main risk factors for heart disease include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and obesity. But stress, anxiety and depression also affect heart health, in particular the kind of intense stress caused by divorce, family conflicts, death of a loved one, prolonged illness or natural disasters. What’s more, studies tell us that depression and stress are associated with heart attacks and can also have a negative effect on recovery.

How does stress lead to heart attacks?

Exactly how stress leads to a heart attack is still being studied. But we do know that it can increase blood pressure and result in hypertension, which leads to heart disease and plaque build-up in the coronary arteries. Stress can also raise the level of cortisol (a stress hormone) circulating in your

body, and this can affect clotting and how your body controls involuntary functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. And of course stress also can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as eating too much, substance abuse, and not exercising.

Managing holiday stress

Christmas can bring the most cherished moments, but it can also be the most stressful time of year. You may carry expectations influenced by memories and social pressures ― a happy smiling family photo, the tempting aromas of home cooking, seeing a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, or singing your favourite carol. However, these visions don’t always match reality, and that can result in stress.

At any time, but especially during the festive period, the key to coping is setting realistic expectations. Try taking a few moments to write down what would make the holidays an enjoyable time with those you love. And let go of the things that add stress and no joy.


1. Increase physical exercise
Find an exercise routine that works for you. This can include daily walks or bike rides, as well as your Cardiac Rehab class. Start slowly and gradually increase your pace and distance as you become fitter.

2. Practice relaxation
Incorporate muscle relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, into your daily routine to help you deal with anxiety and stress.

3. Seek professional help
Get an annual physical and talk to your health care provider about your health, including stress.

4. Eat a healthy diet
Opt for wholegrains, a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairyproducts and lean meats. Avoid added sugars, saturated fats or transfats, and high amounts of salt.

5. Limit alcohol
One simple way to cut down is to have at least a few drink-free days every week. But swapping to lower- strength drinks, such as lighter beers under 4% ABV) or no-alcohol alternatives is also a great step in the right direction. And there are some really great-tasting alternatives to alcohol available now.

6. Stop smoking
If you smoke, plan to quit.

7. Connect to your spirituality
Spirituality has many definitions, but at its core it helps give you a clearer purpose and a greater connection to others and the world around you. It’s not necessarily aligned to a specific belief system or even religious worship. Try prayer or meditation, or keep a journal to express your feelings and focus your attention.

8. Monitor your heart health
Know your numbers for your blood pressure, blood glucose glucose and your cholesterol levels.

Words: Niti Aggarwal MD (2021),