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Why Stress Can Make You Sick And What Houston Has To Do With It

A new study shows stress can put you at higher risk for heart disease. Houston routinely places higher up in "Most Stressful Cities" rankings. Long working hours and long daily commutes can contribute to a heightened stress level.


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According to a study by a Danish researcher, chronically stressed people are 37 percent more likely to develop heart disease. That can be a problem for us here in the Houston area, where people commute an average of 26 minutes and work more weekly hours than any other metropolitan area. The Bayou City usually ranks high on “stressful city” lists and polls.

A 2009 Harris poll has Houston as the second-most stressful city in the nation, and a 2012 study by a mattress company that looked at social media behavior ranks us at number six.

“Well, I think big cities in general, we end up constantly surrounded by other people.”

Dr. Cecilia Sun is a psychologist at the University of Houston.

“Even well-intentioned people are very stressful and I think that we here in Houston not only I think in our busy lives encounter a lot of people, but we also spend a lot of time on the road.”

She says the combination of long working hours and long commutes is a primary reason for high stress levels because it requires more time being vigilant and alert.

“I think cities with more public transit gives you more built-in opportunities, for example, to plug in your headphones and to kind of zone out a bit or focus in a more mindful way on mediation or deep breathing, things that are soothing, reading a book.”

Sun says living in a big city makes it hard to take time for self-care because we’re constantly surrounded by distractions.

Dr. John Higgins is a sports cardiologist with the University of Texas Health Science Center Houston. He says stress can have several negative effects on the heart.

“If there’s a sudden stress that you’re experiencing, that’ll cause the heart to have to beat a lot harder or faster and at the same time the arteries will constrict or narrow so that there’s not as much blood flow getting to the heart.”

Other effects from stress include an irregular heartbeat and thicker blood. That can put you at higher risk for a heart attack or stroke.

Higgins says regular exercise, taking breaks throughout the work day, and a healthful diet can help reduce stress.

Dr. Sun adds time management, setting a schedule and being realistic about what you can accomplish during a day. And, try to think more positively.

“For example, thinking, ‘It’s OK if I make a mistake,’ or, ‘The worst that can happen really isn’t so bad, I’m going to get through this.’ So, giving yourself a break.”

Also important: Take vacations and completely unplug yourself. As Higgins points out: Your work will continue to function without you for a while.

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