Ask an Expert: Stress and stroke risk

Q: I’ve read that stress can increase your risk of having a stroke. Does this warning relate only to anxiety experienced during times of crisis or extend to everyday stress as well?

Answer from Dr. Ted Lowenkopf, medical director of Providence Stroke Center:

The relationship between stress and stroke is not entirely clear. There is no evidence that a single life event, such as an accident or argument, has the power to cause a stroke. A more likely suspect is chronic stress, the gradual buildup of irritation, tension and worry that can take place over the course of many months and years.

A 1997 study published in the medical journal Circulation suggested a possible connection between high levels of mental stress and stroke, but more research is needed to prove such a link. While there is clearly cause for concern about this issue, researchers face a difficult task because the word "stress" has no concrete definition upon which most people agree. A situation that makes me very tense might not bother you much at all, and vice versa. There are also different types of stress to consider. Physical stressors, most notably sleep deprivation, must be studied alongside emotional factors such as fear and anger to fully understand the body’s response to stress over time.

While it is not possible to eliminate stress from your life completely, there are steps you can take to reduce possible long-term damage to your cardiovascular system. Dedicating just a small portion of each day to activities that relax or inspire you can make a big difference. Hobbies, sports, meditation and exercise can all serve as excellent outlets for stress and promote a sense of balance in your life. Such balance is important to your overall well-being.