Reducing stress and monitoring your blood pressure are key to heart health. (Photo: Jesse Orrico, StockSnap)

These are stressful times, no matter whom you supported in the election, which is why now may be the best time to talk about an important new link between anxiety and heart attacks.

I’m not saying it’s unjustified or wrong to be anxious right now; I’m saying allowing it to consume you could be killing you.

There are many reasons heart disease remains the leading cause of death in America, but foremost among them is often the fact that we don’t do enough preventive care. The damage, even from a mild heart attack, is permanent. For now, modern medicine can’t regrow the dead cells in the heart that are left over after the episode has passed. So while I want to mention the importance of taking a deep breath in these trying times, let’s also consider some of the other ways we can all live long enough to be around to experience the change we wish to see in the world.

The link between anxiety and heart attacks
Norwegian researchers report that worrying about having a heart attack can make you much more likely to eventually have one. They found that people who were anxious about their health were twice as likely to develop chest pain or have a heart attack, compared to those who were not. When they took into account other known risk factors of the study participants—such as smoking, lack of physical activity, drinking alcohol or a family history of heart disease—they found about a 70 percent increased risk of heart disease.

Of the more than 7,000 people who took part in the study, just over 700 had scores that identified them as anxious about their health; and during the years their health was tracked, 3 percent of participants (234 people) had a heart attack or acute chest pain (angina) during follow-up.

The researchers who worked on this study readily admitted that they did not prove that worrying over your health directly causes heart problems, only that the two seem to be related. Basically, they proved correlation between the two but not causation. So improving your anxiety and mental health may not prevent a heart attack directly, but it still could, and there are also plenty of other reasons to try and manage your anxiety. Most importantly, less anxious individuals are often happier people who enjoy a higher quality of life, and they also raise happier, less anxious children.

Checking your blood pressure
Roughly one in three American adults suffers from high blood pressure, but only about half of them have their blood pressure under control. As with many other medications, Americans are bad about sticking to a prescription or listening to their doctors' advice. We do it with mental health drugs, and we do it with cholesterol and blood pressure medications as well. The constant starting and stopping can be very damaging to your health, so it’s important to stay consistent.

When we consider that millions more Americans have prehypertension, this problem is affecting at least one member of practically every family out there—and if it's not already, it will be unless we continue to take the right steps to prevent it.

The lack of blood flow related to high blood pressure is not only going to damage your heart and the blood vessels throughout your body, the restricted blood flow means less blood is getting to your brain. So performance and intelligence are also suffering—the very things we need to have the ability to combat high blood pressure and address our heightened anxiety!

Lowering your stress levels 
Stress and anxiety are often closely linked and sometimes even used interchangeably, but they can also be two very different emotions. While anxiety is usually restricted to being a burdensome weight, there’s an argument to make for the positive benefits of stress—because it's not exactly stress that is weighing us down and leading to an early death, but our negative perception of stress.

Obviously, many people in this country feel weighed down by both stress and anxiety right now. If we manage to look at stress as a catalyst for action and change, we realize that stress is really the result of increased adrenaline being pumped into our hearts. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s our bodies' way of giving us a boost to power through a difficult situation. However, because of our natural inclination to try to overcome stress, we often end up working against the natural processes and behaviors meant to make our lives better.

So I'm not saying you shouldn't be stressed right now. I'm not saying you shouldn't feel anxious or worry about the future. The future, as always, is largely uncertain, and so much of it is not within our control. Instead of trying to wrap our heads around what might go wrong or the dangers we might face down the road, I'm going to try to redirect that energy toward something better, something healthier and more productive. It doesn't have to be life-changing or awe-inspiring. It could be as simple as going for a walk, smiling at a passerby or holding the door open for someone. If option B is venting angrily into social media on the couch, shaking my head in disgust at a stranger or ignoring the half of the population I disagree with, well, I'll stick with option A.

We should all keep fighting for a better tomorrow, but again, we can’t vote or volunteer in two years or four if we’re not alive to witness what may come. Anxiety is an understandable emotion in these trying times. Just don’t let it consume your entire life.

Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.